A vision for how Toronto could seek more powers and wrest itself from the control of its provincial masters has been drawn up by a residents’ group that includes former mayor John Sewell.
The proposal, which will be released Tuesday morning — an early copy was provided to the Star — offers a road map for creating what is called a “charter city” where Toronto would have control over various aspects of its own governance without the province being able to interfere in those areas, such as how to it taxes its citizens and holds elections.
“This proposal is not a final set of ideas, but rather the start of a conversation,” the document says in its opening. “No rules are fireproof, but the ones we propose would afford solid protection for the city.”
It was created by a group calling itself Charter City Toronto, which was born out of Premier Doug Ford’s interference in the 2018 municipal election partway through the campaign.
Charter city status has been afforded several U.S. cities but has not yet been done in Canada. Though some Canadian cities, like Calgary, have what they call a charter, those documents have more in common with the City of Toronto Act — a piece of provincial legislation first enacted in 2006 that gave Toronto special powers.
However, as recently experienced through Ford’s slashing of the size of council after council itself had already decided on a 47-ward system, those powers are not protected and can be easily overwritten by the provincial government at any moment.
Making Toronto a charter city would require a constitutional amendment that would see the federal, provincial and municipal governments recognize the city as its own entity rather than simply a “creature of the province,” as is often said, and allow it to have special powers that could not be changed without the consent of both the city and the province.
The charter city advocacy group believes the best route is to request a single province amendment which would not, as countrywide constitutional amendments do, require the permission of the other provinces.
Sewell, one of more than a dozen people who developed the proposal, told the Star that what the charter would actually guarantee is up for discussion. He hopes their proposal will help people envision what they really want for their city.
“It’s the first time, that I’m aware, of a group ever trying to say ‘here’s what a charter would actually look like,’” Sewell said. “My hope is that people will start to look at that and say, ‘you shouldn’t have that in there but what about this? You forgot about this.”
Some of the proposals may prove controversial, including giving the city jurisdiction over aspects of health care and education.
For example, the proposal recommends the city regain full control of its public education system, funded through property taxes which are now, in part, allocated to the province, citing issues of schools falling into disrepair, management of surplus properties and the dictating of class sizes.
“Is it really true that the city should be in charge of education again as it used to be? I think a lot of people who are involved in the school system would say yes,” Sewell said. “Now we have to sort out the financial issues about that because the province has grabbed all the property tax revenue that used to fund the education system.”
On property taxes, the proposal also says the city alone should control how property tax assessments are done, establishing different tax classes and other issues as the city has seen small businesses and others, especially in the fast-growing downtown core, squeezed under the current pace of development.
“They don’t suffer any of the consequences of having crazy rules,” Sewell said of the provincial government. “That doesn’t make sense at all.”
Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 12 Toronto—St. Paul’s), who has championed the idea of a charter for Toronto, said he plans to host another “substantial” event in the new year to talk about the idea after a panel discussion with Sewell and others organized by his office this summer drew a crowd of more than 1,000 people. He said he also wants to meet directly with diverse groups of residents across the city.
“I really appreciate (Charter City Toronto’s) creativity and their efforts to bring a lot of ideas forward for discussion,” he said of the group’s proposal, adding he doesn’t want to “put the cart before the horse.”
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He said the first step is to build support among the provincial and federal governments to have a charter in the first place and to listen to residents about what they expect from their local government.
“Without the support of our current provincial government this is going to be at the very least a three-year campaign,” he said. “I think its really important that while there are very engaged citizens like those involved in (Charter City Toronto), we engage every neighbourhood in every corner of the city.”