by Keely Kinley
On September 19, 2019, the Ontario Court of Appeal dismissed the City of Toronto’s legal challenge against the Province of Ontario for making unilateral changes to the size and structure of Toronto’s city council midway through last year’s municipal election period (Toronto (City) v. Ontario (Attorney General), 2019 ONCA 732). In a 3-2 decision, the Court of Appeal held that the province had the “legitimate authority” to reduce council from 47 to 25 seats, and that doing so was constitutional even in the middle of an active election (para 6).
At trial, the Ontario Superior Court ruled that Bill 5 – the legislation that changed Toronto’s ward structure – “substantially interfered” with both candidates’ and voters’ freedom of expression contrary to s. 2(b) of the Charter (Toronto et al v. Ontario (Attorney General), 2018 ONSC 5151). Specifically, the court found that Bill 5 interfered with candidates’ freedom to effectively communicate their political messages to voters and, by doubling the population size of City wards, also interfered with electors’ ability to express political views through voting. Nine days after the ONSC decision was released, the province won a stay of the ruling and the election proceeded with 25 wards on October 22, 2018.
On appeal, the court found that Bill 5 did not infringe the s. 2(b) rights of either candidates or voters. Justice Miller, writing for the majority, emphasized that s. 2(b) of the Charter protects against interference with expressive activity, not interference with expressive activity’s intended result; consequently, “legislation that changes some state of affairs (such as the number of electoral wards) such that a person’s past communications lose their relevance, and no longer contribute to the desired project (election to public office), is not, on that basis, a limitation of anyone’s rights under s. 2(b)” (para 41).
All five judges agreed that the Province had the constitutional authority to alter the structure of Toronto’s City Council, that legislation cannot be stuck down solely on the basis of unwritten constitutional principles, and that Bill 5 did not infringe voters’ 2(b) rights. However, MacPherson and Justice Nordheimer decried Miller’s characterization of the expressive activity affected by the ward changes as “a person’s past communications” as overly narrow and found that candidates’ 2(b) rights were infringed by the mid-election enactment of Bill 5.
MacPherson’s fiery dissent called for a purposive approach to freedom of expression in the election context and identified the 2(b) right implicated in this case as the “right of all electoral participants to freely express themselves within the terms of the election after it had begun” (para 128). Justice MacPherson cited para 1 of the Asper Centre’s factum to support this view: “The Charter’s guarantee of freedom of expression is a key individual right that exists within and is essential to the broader institutional framework of our democracy. In the election context, freedom of expression is not a soliloquy. It is not simply the right of candidates and the electorate to express views and cast ballots. It expands to encompass a framework for the full deliberative engagement of voters, incumbents, new candidates, volunteers, donors, campaign organizers and staff, and the media, throughout a pre-determined, stable election period.”
The dissenting judgment suggests that free expression in the election context requires that an election’s basic terms not be “upended mid-stream” (para 123). Reducing the size of city council during an active election made it difficult for volunteers, voters, donors, and commentators to carry on expressing themselves “within the established terms of [the] election then in progress” (para 128), and this is why Justice MacPherson’s finding that candidates’ 2(b) rights were infringed turned on the timing of the Bill; even though the province never directly curtailed expressive activity, it effectively “blew up the efforts, aspirations and campaign materials of hundreds of aspiring candidates” when it altered the ward structure in the middle of the election period (para 136).
While the majority did not adopt the Asper Centre’s broad, purposive view of freedom of expression in the election context, this was a successful intervention for the Centre. Its arguments were cited with approval in both judgments and provided important international context to this difficult case of first instance.
As of January 2019, Toronto City Council has instructed staff “to pursue a leave to appeal application to the Supreme Court of Canada in the event the Province is successful on its appeal at the Court of Appeal” (see the City’s public statement here: http://wx.toronto.ca/inter/it/newsrel.nsf/11476e3d3711f56e85256616006b891f/d354c2f99405923b8525847a0056fff8?OpenDocument); staff are now in the process of reviewing the court’s decision in detail. If the City appeals, the 3-2 split at the Court of Appeal and the national significance of the issues raised in this case might improve the odds of the Supreme Court of Canada granting them leave.
Keely Kinley is a 2L JD Student at the Faculty of Law. She was the 2019 Asper Centre summer research assistant and is currently leading the Asper Centre’s Climate Justice student working group.