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Are Strong Mayors Weakening Democracy in Ontario?

By Morgan Lovell

If you were asked to explain how a motion passes in your local city council, what would you say? A likely answer would be that a motion’s approval requires a majority vote from city councillors.

However, in many municipalities across Ontario, this is no longer always the case.

The introduction of strong mayor powers, which have now been granted to 49 municipalities across the province, has brought many changes to the way local government operates. There are now certain motions that can pass with just one-third of support from council, a change that some are calling an affront to democracy.

This begs the question: What reason could the provincial government have for introducing a system that calls the validity of democracy into question?

Unfortunately, not one that is justified.

What Are Strong Mayor Powers?

Bill 3, the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act, came into effect in fall 2022. This bill allows the Province of Ontario to grant additional powers and authority to mayors, including the ability to appoint CAO’s, hire/fire certain department heads, and to propose and veto certain bylaws.

This bill also introduced the concept of provincial priorities, which are meant to guide the implementation of these powers.

Ontario has currently defined two priorities:

  1. Build 1.5 million new residential units in Ontario by 2031.
  2. Construct and maintain infrastructure to support housing.

Only municipalities that commit to specific housing targets outlined for them by the province are eligible to receive strong mayor powers. And certain aspects of the powers, such as the ability to veto bylaws, are reserved for instances where not doing so would present a barrier in achieving these housing targets.

“Cutting Red Tape”

This is the phrase that former Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark used to describe what strong mayor powers would help achieve. Strong mayors have the ability to bypass regular procedures for the purpose of getting houses built, which will result in the faster delivery of provincial priorities.

This position has been echoed by Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who has additionally commented that failing to implement these powers would “worsen the housing affordability crisis.”

Are Strong Mayor Powers Necessary?

Despite being granted these powers, several mayors have made the decision not to use them. Waterloo mayor Dorothy McCabe has said that she “can’t foresee a situation” where she’d need to use strong mayor powers, and that the city is capable of reaching its housing targets without them.

In addition to being viewed as unnecessary, there is criticism about the province’s reasoning for implementing these powers in the first place.

The housing crisis is a complex problem that will require sophisticated solutions to solve. It is highly likely that the new homes being built with the aid of strong mayor powers will still be unaffordable for those in most dire need of better housing options. And considering the reluctance from the provincial government to increase affordable housing supports and protect existing rentals, this can only be seen as a inadequate solution.

An Affront to Democracy

As mentioned earlier, there are aspects of strong mayor powers that have come under criticism as being undemocratic, with arguments that they “normalize minority rule as legitimate authority.”

In this model of governance, additional powers given to the mayor are largely at the expense of council members, lessening their influence in guiding government decision making. This leads one to wonder how councillors can properly give voice to the concerns of their constituents if their influence is diminished?

It’s also important to consider that provincial priorities can be changed in the future without consultation. The current justifications for strong mayor powers will be invalid if provincial priorities change or broaden. Not to mention the additional threat to democracy this would bring, as expanding this list would lead to even broader authority given to mayors to create and veto bylaws without typical council approval.

What Does this Mean for Ontario?

The introduction of strong mayor powers should be a cause for concern for all Ontarians. These powers not only present a threat to the future of democracy, but they demonstrate a lack of commitment from the province to provide meaningful solutions to the housing crisis.

Undermining democracy seems a steep price to pay for housing solutions that likely won’t deliver the results we need.

First Past the Post is hurting Canada’s democracy

By Dan Roibas

Canadians are becoming disenchanted with our democracy.

Over the last two elections, First Past the Post has empowered a party that is no longer the most desired by our country. The Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) has leveraged the “winner take all” power of FPTP to efficiently pick off enough ridings to win the general elections while losing the popular vote by two hundred thousand ballots and decreasing overall participation in each election since coming to power.

The damage FPTP is causing is most obvious when you examine the first election of Justin Trudeau. This election had one of the highest rates of voter participation since 1993, which saw 68% of the eligible voting population participate. People were excited at the prospect of a new, young leader, with a familiar name and new ideas about how to run the country. Particularly, ideas on fixing the broken voting system which historically kept down popular parties like the NDP and empowered ones without broad support, like the Bloc Quebecois. Voters were so excited, in fact, they rewarded the LPC with a majority government, giving them the power to implement these ideas however they saw fit.

However, the LPC had not won more than fifty percent of the vote to match their seat total, laying the first groundwork for them to abandon their promise. Over the next two elections, the Liberals showed yet another reason to keep the status quo, by being rewarded for losing the popular vote with even more seats from 2019 to 2021. Winning political parties will continue to be rewarded until one that wins realizes fixing Canadian democracy is more important than any one party’s ambitions for re-election.

FPTP does undeniably have some benefits for the Canadian context as Canada has always needed to appeal to regional parties to accommodate its sparse population over a vast landscape, such as with the Bloc Quebecois in Quebec and the Reform Party in the West. The power FPTP has given to these parties, especially in the case of the Bloc, offsets Canada’s lack of regional representation at the federal level that, say, a legitimate Senate would. But the requirements to alter the Senate to make it legitimate would mean opening the can of worms that is amending the constitution, a far more difficult path to go down than changing our electoral system.

Ideally, our electoral system must then balance regional interests as well as the broader interests of our democracy, which it could with a more robust system such as Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP). This electoral system has mostly been known for its use in Germany, and while a densely populated smaller nation is not exactly comparable, there are similarities between our two countries.

Germany had similar regional divides as Canada, having been divided into East and West for years, and a diverse parliamentary government system. And here is where Canada could leverage MMP, giving more power to smaller, regional parties, while maintaining the strength of more broadly appealing ones.

Were MMP implemented in Canada, we could address issues in this country that go back further than the Constitution Act. We could create a parliament as diverse as the people of this country, one built on cooperation and compromise, rather than the cynical calculation of how few ridings a party needs to win. Fixing these democratic deficits go towards fixing problems at the very heart of Canadian society.

Is the Supreme Court of Canada diverse and inclusive?

By Benthara Pettah

In a Political Science class, the Professor remarked on how regional representation at the Supreme Court was necessary to represent the vast and diverse geography of Canada. As an international student in a land that embraces diversity, I wondered if the same diversity was reflected in the apex court of the country. Unfortunately, the answer is no, not enough.

In 2023, for the first time, there is a justice from the indigenous community on the Supreme Court. There are five women justices on the bench, also for the first time. However, there is not much racial diversity and there has never been a black judge.

Why diversity?

The diversity of backgrounds at the Supreme Court is not just a matter of representation but is also a requirement for sustaining the ideals of justice, equity and a sense of belonging. A diverse and inclusive judiciary is what enables the judiciary to be both independent and impartial. Because the values, perspectives and experiences of people appearing in court are different from those judging them, this could impact the ability of judges to appreciate their circumstances, assess their credibility and craft appropriate remedies. “As a law student,” Chief Justice McLachlin said in her Edinburgh speech, “I never dreamed that I would be called upon to decide whether a religious Muslim woman may be permitted to wear a Niqab while testifying, or whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, or whether children can refuse life-saving medical treatment on religious grounds”. Although judges are capable of making fair decisions for minority communities, the increasing number of women on the bench demonstrates how a heterogeneous bench is leading to enhanced judicial decisions.

As Chief Justice Wagner said in a news conference, diversity inspires and maintains public confidence in the judiciary:  “All Canadians should be able to see themselves reflected in their justice system. Justice should not make a person feel like an outsider or an ‘other’ when they confront it”

Way Forward

Critics consider diversity an antithesis to the merit system, mostly because there are not many qualified candidates from the marginalised community. This is the consequence of generations-long systemic oppression and the disenfranchised people will require some more accessibility, such as scholarships and mentorship programs. Diversity does not dilute judicial excellence; it merely broadens the perspective of the justice system. Further, United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 promotes the inclusion and participation of under-represented people in the judiciary. 

There are also arguments that there are not many qualified candidates who are from diverse backgrounds. This just proves the systemic disparity and calls for more outreach programs and funding from the state. Widening the talent pool is a responsibility, not an act of charity.

For some, the diversity argument is just tokenism and low-hanging fruit. According to them, no good can come out of it in addressing the core issue of inclusion. However, Justice Shirzad in his speech mentioned that “diversity in substance is the answer.  A bench that is diverse in substance, therefore, is not only representative of Canada’s diversity but is also empowered to render decisions informed by that diversity.There is general acknowledgement that New Zealand and Norway, leading examples of ethnic and gender diversity in the judiciary, have improved the overall performance of the judiciary.


The counterarguments to diversity only raise questions regarding the process of bringing diversity to the Bench. Bringing more qualified candidates from minority communities requires conscious effort from the government, such as providing accessible education and opportunities. In an interview with Christina Restoule, the manager of indigenous community services, at Conestoga College, on the conditions of indigenous students, she said “In order for students to want success, they need to see success.” Therefore, it is time that the government, along with community organisations and educational institutions, initiate policies that include widening the talent pool from diverse demographics.

In 2023, a woman from the indigenous community was nominated to the Supreme Court. This should be seen as the start not the end of the process of bringing more diversity to the judiciary. There should be more judges from diverse communities to reflect the democratic aspirations of the country.