At its core, local democracy requires both democratic processes and the participation of residents. It’s about ensuring that people have a say in local decisions that directly affect their daily lives.
In Canada, local democracy has always been precarious. As creatures of the Province, Toronto and other Ontario municipalities are at the whim of the provincial government, a truth more apparent with each passing day.
One of the more egregious expressions of this reality took place four years ago, just ahead of the 2018 municipal election, when the Province of Ontario slashed Toronto City Council in half. The City went from a planned 47-ward system, informed by careful research and consultation, to a 25-ward system, imposed unilaterally by provincial authority.
Now, after a full Council term with the 25-ward system, we have a better understanding of just how detrimental this decision has been to our local democracy. Each councillor position went from representing about 60,000 residents to about 120,000. The volume of work, coupled with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, has meant that residents have less access to their local councillor. The job is even harder in the wards that are experiencing the most growth, as journalists have already noted (see this and this).
“Strong” mayor, weaker democracy
We recently saw another threat to Toronto’s local democracy. In September, the Ontario legislature passed Bill 3, Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act, 2022, which gives the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa additional powers. The legislation gives the mayor of Toronto the authority to veto bylaws that conflict with provincial policy goals. It also gives the mayor responsibility for preparing and tabling the City's budget. In essence, power has been taken away from residents and the councillors who represent them, and given to the mayor and provincial government.
The strength of our democracy is dependent on our engagement with it. Toronto residents have the power to turn the tide on this slow and quiet, yet alarming, erosion of our democracy. Social entrepreneur and changemaker Kofi Hope recently spoke about how the fall of democracies is not always dramatic or through a surge of violent revolution; many times it dies with a whimper in the night or a collective shrug of indifference. Now is the time for us to reclaim our local democracy, beginning with our votes, but certainly not ending there. Rather than giving in to the misconception that our voices or votes won’t actually affect change, we need to demand better from our system and from our publicly elected leaders. Each of our votes matters, especially in a municipal election. Toronto needs and deserves much better, and we need your voices and votes.
Increasing community power in local decision-making is a key driver in making change happen and nurturing a more democratic culture. This sentiment was strongly reflected during the conversation we held last week on what Toronto needs for a just and equitable pandemic recovery and renewal. Participants talked about the lack of political will to fully invest in or enable structural changes to address inequality, tackle poverty, and turn the tide on the affordability crisis. They called for structures and processes that bring forward community voices, especially those from under-represented and marginalized groups. We were reminded of the popular adage, “If you don't have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu.” This idea suggests that without an avenue to express your own unique and specific interests and experiences in decisions, you are vulnerable to being excluded or exploited.
Sometimes it is about the money
The municipal budget is one very important area where we have already seen big gaps in the democratic process. We know from years of monitoring, analyzing, and engaging with the City’s budget process that we need greater resident and community input, not less. Each year, SPT works with communities to raise awareness about the City budget, support residents in having their voices heard, and advocate for budget improvements that reflect community needs and priorities. Last year and in years previous, we drew attention to the concerning lack of processes that allow for meaningful democratic engagement, accountability, and transparency. The strong mayor legislation is a further step in the wrong direction.
The election of the next City Council on October 24 is an opportunity to begin to shift away from a transactional approach to community consultation towards an open and collaborative model. The City must work with communities to create processes and timelines that will not only allow, but also encourage, residents and communities to shape the budget, from the planning stage to the final vote at Council. An initial step, for example, would be to resource budget engagement activities to support community organizations in carrying out on-the-ground engagement with residents. Strengthening the inclusion of community voices would support deeper and more nuanced equity analyses of budget decisions, ultimately leading to a budget that better meets the needs of all residents. The post-election period will also be an important time for residents and communities to take a greater role in setting the agenda and a strong vision for a more equitable, affordable, and livable Toronto, rather than waiting on the mayor, City Council, or City staff to set their agenda then ask for feedback.
Democracy needs you!
A fundamental principle of democracy is active and informed resident engagement. However, the City’s current methods for participating in decision-making processes are designed for residents who already know how the system works and have the means to participate, leaving out under-represented and marginalized residents. It is no wonder that so many residents feel that their voices are not being heard and are choosing to stay home on election day.
But we cannot let apathy get in our way. We need to get louder.
Let’s start on October 24, by voting in candidates that centre communities, equality, justice, affordability, and bold ideas to tackle the multiple and mounting crises around poverty, housing, safety, well-being, and climate.
Our next City Council must understand that they need to go further than just opening up the doors of City Hall. Our next City Council needs to bring City Hall to our doorsteps. As soon as the election is over, let’s make sure that each and every member of Council does that.