Municipal politicians like to say their level of government is the one that has the biggest impact on people’s lives. And they’re right. Garbage collection, water and sewage services, snow clearing, waste pickup, pedestrian safety, policing and fire services: they’re the things that affect people every day.
Yet this level of government is also where our democracy is most fragile. While our provincial governments’ jurisdictions are carefully protected by the constitution, municipal governments only have the power those provincial governments let them have. And they can take that power away at any time.
Consider Doug Ford. Upon becoming premier of Ontario, one of his first actions was to slash the size of Toronto city council. No consultation, no public input. Opponents challenged it and won a brief legal victory when a judge ruled the cuts impacted Torontonians’ rights to free expression. Ford quickly threatened to invoke the “notwithstanding clause” of the constitution. That rarely-used provision lets provincial governments enact laws the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would otherwise block. (It’s complicated, but that’s the gist.)
Ford says he wants the cuts because the council is too big and inefficient. Or more plausibly, he’s still hurt over losing the last Toronto mayoral race (coupled with various beefs over his time as a municipal politician) and is taking the opportunity for some petty revenge.
A successful legal appeal means Ford gets his cuts without using the notwithstanding clause, but he says he’ll use it if courts block his legislation again. And do you suppose he’s alone? Somewhere right now, another premier or aspiring populist with eyes on higher office is thinking “Oh, good idea!”
And someone else is thinking “That big-city liberal Trevor just hates Conservatives!” So here’s a reminder: wannabe-authoritarian governments doing antidemocratic things is a non-partisan issue around here.
Consider Halifax Regional Municipality. If you lived in any of the communities that now comprise HRM, do you recall any politicians asking you if you wanted to lose your local government? Do you remember voting in a democratic referendum? You don’t, because you had no say in the matter. John Savage’s Liberal government decided amalgamation was happening, permanently changing the democratic representation of thousands of Nova Scotians and boom, that was that.
More recently, Liberal premier Stephen McNeil decided we don’t need elected school boards. And whoops, now they’re gone. Again, it didn’t matter if people wanted that democratic representation. The premier, who hasn’t shown himself to be a big fan of dissenting views and civil debate, didn’t want elected school boards, so we don’t have them.
When the government was pushing through the legislation to eliminate them, education consultant Paul Bennett appeared before the provincial Law Amendments committee to give his approval. He argued (as reported by CTV) that school boards should have worked harder to demonstrate their “democratic legitimacy” before McNeil axed them.
It’s not hard to imagine a future where some Bluenose Doug Ford looks at municipal governments and thinks the same thing. They muse how most people don’t vote in municipal elections, so municipal governments lack “democratic legitimacy.”
Then they recall how McNeil effortlessly eliminated democratic school boards and wonder if we really need elected municipal governments. Wouldn’t it be efficient to replace them with political appointees?
When dangerous politicians get elected, we console ourselves with lines like “They won’t be here forever; our institutions are strong. The system is built to prevent them from doing too much damage.”
That’s warm reassuring nonsense. As the Doug Fords of the world show, institutions are easily overpowered. They’re only as strong as the people we elect to safeguard them. Preserving democracy requires constant vigilance.