The federal government would be open to the idea of an agreement between Ontario and Toronto that gives the city constitutionally-protected powers over it’s own domain, says Liberal MP Adam Vaughan.
Vaughan, just re-elected in the Toronto riding of Spadina—Fort York, said in speaking with the Liberal caucus and the Prime Minister’s Office he thinks it’s an idea whose time has come, calling it an “incredibly important initiative.”
“We’re prepared to take a look at what provinces and cities propose,” Vaughan said Tuesday, saying a first draft proposal released Tuesday by citizens group Charter City Toronto, led in part by former mayor John Sewell, sets the right parameters.
A city “charter” — which would see the federal, provincial and city governments having a written agreement that amends the Constitution to provide the city more autonomy and a recognition it is not subject to provincial whims on certain issues — is a status not afforded any Canadian city. Major U.S. cities like New York and Chicago operate with charter status, often called “home rule.”
Charter City Toronto was born out of backlash to Premier Doug Ford’s government interfering in the 2018 election by slashing the size of council.
A majority of Toronto council members, including Mayor John Tory, voted in September 2018, following that meddling, to request the federal government provide a way for cities to establish a city charter.
“There’s an appetite across the country, for big cities in particular, but for important centres to sort of have a bit more constitutional stability and legislative stability and not be subject to the vendettas we’ve seen in Ontario or the cuts we’ve seen in Alberta,” Vaughan said.
He said an important component of the proposal put forward by Charter City Toronto is that any changes would require sign-off from the city.
The constitutional amendment would need federal sign-off, but wouldn’t launch a cross-country constitutional debate, with only the agreement of the province and city in question required and not the approval of any other provinces.
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office said they had nothing to add to Vaughan’s comments.
The office of NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, whose support Trudeau may need to see an amendment approved in a minority government situation, did not respond to a request for comment.
In recent months, Tory has been unclear about whether he supports a Toronto charter, which is being championed by Councillor Josh Matlow, who has been publicly critical of the mayor on transit and other issues.
On TVO’s “The Agenda” last month, Tory didn’t directly answer a question about whether he is in favour of a charter from host Steve Paikin, saying that he found the idea of secession — an idea briefly raised by his mayoral rival Jennifer Keesmaat in the election — “ridiculous” but also said that he wanted the city to be able to have control over matters within its own boundaries without have to ask permission of the province.
The charter idea doesn’t propose separating from the province, while it does provide a way for Toronto to have autonomous powers.
Asked about this Tuesday, Tory said he’s “quite happy to have the discussion” and maintained the city should have greater autonomy.
“I think his is a narrow enough discussion that it may well be the case if we act properly, put forward rational thoughts as to how the city could be run differently that it might be something that would be entertained and I’m happy to be a part of that.”
At the bureaucratic level there appears to be some support.
In an annual address Monday, city manager Chris Murray was asked what he thought of the charter, saying if directed the civil service “would like to weigh on and provide some direction and advice to council on that.”
“Obviously it has some merit.”
Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark’s office said in a statement that the existing City of Toronto Act — which can be overridden by the province at any time — already provides the city with some special authority.
“We look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with all municipalities, including the City of Toronto, to find savings, strengthen front-line services and protect what matters most,” the statement said.
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Ontario Liberal leadership hopeful Michael Coteau, current MPP for Don Valley East, told the Star he believes in a “new deal” for municipalities and reviewing the roles of municipalities and relationship with the provincial government, including the creation of a charter for Toronto and other major cities and regions — something he’s proposed to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario.
That includes a conversation about constitutionally-protected powers, which he noted is unchartered territory for the province and country.
Councillor Stephen Holyday (Ward 2 Etobicoke Centre), who voted against Matlow’s motion in September, said he is “skeptical” of the motivations for creating a city charter.
“I’m still unclear on what the problem is they’re attempting to solve with the charter proposal,” Holyday said. “It’s still unclear whether or not this a disagreement on the politics of the provincial government or a flaw in the system.”
He said he also has “grave concerns” that creating a charter for Toronto would lead to different sets of rules for Toronto and surrounding cities like Mississauga, which borders his ward. He said he is also concerned about the idea that the city become responsible for issues it currently isn’t, such as education.
Academics said a charter should be explored.
“I think it’s an interesting proposal, with a lot of ideas,” said Patricia Wood, York University geography professor. “I think the discussion about municipal governance also goes beyond a charter, but thinking about a charter is a great way to think about municipal governance and what it’s for, and that’s a conversation I think we should be having.”
Bruce Ryder, a professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School and expert in constitutional law, said the Charter City Toronto proposal “makes an important and constructive contribution” to the debate.
“It lays out one clear path forward to secure greater autonomy for municipalities from unilateral provincial interference,” he said.
He said the challenges going forward are more political than legal — “how do you convince a future provincial government to agree to limit provincial powers?” And, he said, “how do you convince MPs in Ottawa (especially those from outside Ontario) that they ought to vote in favour of an amendment that speaks specifically and only to greater autonomy for municipalities in Ontario?”
Erica Woods, program and operations director at Progress Toronto, a political advocacy group, said it’s too early to say what a charter should say or if a charter is needed at all.
“I think think there’s no question that Toronto needs more power and needs to be respected by other levels of government,” she said.
Woods said people were surprised that the province had the ability to interfere with an election in the middle of the process and consulting with residents about the kind of city they want as the Charter City Toronto group plans to do will inform what happens next.