TORONTO – Ontario’s legislature will hold a rare midnight sitting as the government works to push through a bill cutting the size of Toronto’s city council nearly in half.
The Progressive Conservative government called for the midnight session Saturday after the opposition parties refused to pass the bill with unanimous consent.
On Saturday evening, the lieutenant-governor granted the government’s request to reconvene the house at 12:01 a.m. Monday to continue to expedite passage of the bill.
That follows an uncommon weekend sitting at Queen’s Park on Saturday to debate Bill 31, dubbed the Efficient Local Government Act, which slashes the number of Toronto councillors to 25 from 47.
The session lasted just over 45 minutes as opposition legislators entered petitions into the record to delay the bill’s passage.
“It’s going to be lights on, cameras on, and everything is going to be out there in the open for people to see,” Government House leader Todd Smith said after being asked if the government was hurrying the legislation through under the cover of night.
“We have a lot of great reasons as to why this bill should be passed as quickly as possible,” he added.
The new bill reintroduces legislation that was struck down by an Ontario Superior Court judge, who said it violated the charter rights of candidates and voters in Toronto’s upcoming election. The legislation will invoke the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to overrule the court decision.
Earlier this week, City of Toronto clerk Ulli Watkiss said that with each passing day it becomes “virtually impossible” to ensure the city provides its residents and candidates with a fair election.
Smith said that the city needs certainty around its election, which is set for Oct. 22, so the bill must be passed quickly.
“Our party, the PC caucus is here to work and get things done for the people of Ontario so we’re going to debate that bill from 12:01 a.m. until the early morning hours of Monday morning,” he said.
The government has made the rare move because it finds itself crunched for time this week at the legislature. The International Plowing Match in Chatham-Kent is set for Tuesday and each year Queen’s Park closes for a day so all politicians can attend.
The midnight sitting will allow the Tory government to reach the needed 6 1/2 hours on this stage of debate to push the bill forward in the legislative process.
The government hopes to have the legislation passed by the end of the week.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government’s move to push the legislation through shows it has misplaced priorities.
“It’s pretty clear the government is being very disrespectful about the legislature and what this house is all about,” she said. “They’re playing silly games at time when we have literally kids in our schools that can’t drink the water because there’s lead in it.”
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said he’s asked the government how much it cost provincial taxpayers to call all of the legislators, their staff and workers at Queen’s Park back to work for the special sessions and has received no reply.
“This premier said he was elected to save taxpayers money,” he said. “He is wasting taxpayers’ money with a frivolous political fight against the city of Toronto… How much money is this premier willing to waste for his own personal political agenda?”
Protesters arrived at Queen’s Park again Saturday to demonstrate against the Toronto council cut and use of the notwithstanding clause. Two people were arrested after they shouted when the session was adjourned, yelling at government legislators as they exited the chamber.
Ron Hanks, a Toronto resident who participated in a protest before the session started Saturday, said the actions of the Ford government are “outrageous” and will hurt the civic election.
“Will the election be compromised because of administrative issue? Will it be postponed?” he said. “Is that democracy?”
Toronto Mayor John Tory, who has opposed the move to cut council since it was introduced by the PC government, released a statement to mark the International Day of Democracy, which fell on Saturday.
“In recent weeks we have all come to a heightened awareness of the importance of our democracy,” he said, adding. “We must cherish and protect the democratic values that give us all a voice in shaping our city, our society, and the greatest country in the world.”
Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who was in Toronto for the city’s Ukrainian festival, said Saturday that Premier Doug Ford is entirely within his rights to invoke the notwithstanding clause.
“There’s no doubt that municipal elections fall under the control of provincial governments and the administration of it,” he said. “The charter ultimately gives power to Canadian voters, and in this case the voters of Ontario, to pass the ultimate judgment on these types of matters.”
— with files from Alanna Rizza