Menu Close

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.

Destruction of the Greenbelt: Is it Worth it?

By Sara Dix

The Ontario Greenbelt is two million acres of protected land that should remain untouched by land developers as it is one of the most biologically rich areas that provides fresh air, clean water, and homes for wildlife. It is essential for the preservation and conservation of Ontario’s natural areas.

In September 2023, Ontario Premier, Doug Ford, announced the reversal of his government’s decision to open the Greenbelt to land development. This was followed shortly after by the resignation of the Ontario Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister, Steve Clark.

This decision was the result of massive public criticism and reports that revealed concerning information regarding the government’s decision-making process over the past year.

The Land Swap Announcement

When the Ford government announced their plans to open up thousands of acres of Greenbelt land for development in November 2022, Municipal Affairs Minister, Steve Clark, argued that it was a step to tackle the housing crisis in Ontario by building 50,000 new homes.

The fifteen pieces of Greenbelt planned to be developed, totalling 7,400 acres, were located in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area and 9,400 acres would have been added from somewhere else, which defines the term: “land swap.”

Public Outcry

However, The Narwhal points out that “experts say you can’t just draw a line around a piece of land, say it’s protected and assume it will all work out – how that land is connected to what’s around it will also define how successful conservation efforts might be.” Therefore, the plan did not consider the impacts of removing this land in terms of preserving the natural state of the Greenbelt.

Among one of the groups to criticize the government’s decision, Parks Canada warned that the removal of land from the Greenbelt would mean “irreversible harm” to the Rouge Urban National Park and that the government had violated an agreement with Parks Canada by committing to the plan.

Even the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers condemned the land swap plan by stating that “converting Greenbelt lands to residential development will hinder Ontario’s carbon targets without providing economic return, nor reduce the cost of buying a new home.”

The former provincial planner, Victor Doyle, who is credited as an architect of the protected area stated that the land swap “threatens the stability and certainty of the Greenbelt…It undermines its permanency…creates an incredibly powerful precedent that will weaken the Greenbelt significantly.”

Meanwhile, multiple investigations into misconduct within the government’s decision-making process began in December 2022 that questioned the influence of certain developers.

Ford Government Corruption

The Ontario Integrity Commissioner, David Wake, began an investigation into whether Clark breached rules that forbids MPPs from “making decisions or using insider information to improperly further their interests, or those of other people.” This report found that Clark failed to ensure that the process was completed properly and that developers had direct access to political staff.

The next scathing report on the government’s conduct came from Ontario’s auditor general, Bonnie Lysyk, which questioned how much the developers stood to gain from the Greenbelt land sales and whether the plan was created in the public’s interest. The report revealed that certain developers were given “preferential treatment” and had a direct impact on the government’s decision. Of the 7,400 acres of land, 92% could be tied to three developers who would have direct access to the housing market and for the owners of fifteen sites, there could be an $8.3 billion increase in the land’s value.

Support for Development

The main group who has fully supported opening the Greenbelt are the developers themselves. Many in this industry have despised the Greenbelt since its creation because it places limits on where the developers can build and many have pushed to have their own land removed. As a result, they were able to influence the provincial government by utilizing their lobbying power.

There was also support from municipal leaders such as former mayor of Mississauga, Hazel McCallion, who agreed that the Greenbelt restrictions should be loosened to increase housing and preexisting infrastructure while maintaining the conservation efforts.

Is the Greenbelt Worth It?

The Greenbelt is worth it, frankly. It provides so much more than just land to develop into residential or commercial buildings and during a time when climate change is worsening, protecting as much wildlife and natural resources as possible is more essential than ever.