When it comes to the ward system, Toronto is on the money

Post by Eric Mang in

2 comments

Toronto Wards

I was raised in Toronto but spent just over four years in BC. There were things I got used to: the relatively balmy weather, which allowed me to go for a run outdoors in January; the massive trees, slightly different flora and fauna, the smell of salt air; the gastronomical nightmare that is disconcertingly named White Spot; the absence of highways (I mean eight hundred lane beasts like the 401. The lack of highways is not a bad thing as I like fewer cars on the road. Building more lanes doesn’t encourage people to drive less).

I found the notion of Lotus-Landers as laidback, doob-smokers to be largely mythical. British Columbians could be as easy going or as neurotic or as money-grubbing-greed-hounds as Ontarians. Of course, there are some regional differences found in culture or linguistic expressions (I was mocked for calling a place where one escapes during the summer a “cottage”. I was told these places of warm weather refuge are called “cabins”. I explained that, to my Toronto ears, a cabin is a place where one dries meat, has no running water and one shits in the woods. Also known as “camping”), but there are more commonalities uniting Canadians than dividing us.

The one thing that always puzzled me, that seemed oddly undemocratic, was Vancouver’s system of municipal governance. Civics primer: all municipalities are creatures of provincial governments. That is, the powers they have were endowed on them by a higher and constitutionally recognized level of government. Elected councillors then exercise these powers. And municipal governments have a fascinatingly unique role by governing through combining the executive and legislative branches. For those of you who were incensed by the Harper government’s ignorance of our Westminster model, you knew that the executive (ie Cabinet) and the Legislative (ie House of Commons) were discrete entities.

In Toronto, our Mayor is elected through a general vote. This means that we mark a ballot that directly elects the head of council. Again, to make a federal comparison, Prime Ministers are not elected through a general vote. This is another thing that confused the Tories… However, our council is elected through a ward system. If you live in Ward 29 Toronto-Danforth, then you elect a councillor for your ward. Also, there are no political parties; although you may get to know a prospective councillor’s ideological leanings through campaign literature or voting record if an incumbent. When reporting on the actions of Toronto councillors, journalists will use short-hand references such as the “right leaning Councillor Karen Stintz (Ward 16 Eglinton-Lawrence)” or the “left leaning Councillor Adam Giambrone (Ward 18 Davenport)”.

It is possible that I champion a ward system because it is the most familiar to me. But, as with provincial and federal ridings, I think having a local representative presents greater accountability and gives constituents a more direct stake in the affairs of city hall. And if one is a champion of the subsidiarity principle, you appreciate that decision-making should be local.

Choosing a candidate from a massive list can be confusing and doesn’t seem to be very representative. It’s like a colossal, cross-city popularity contest. While that may function in towns and small cities, urban centres like Vancouver are too massive; voters have a lot of homework to do if they want to know enough about the candidates to make an informed decision. Moreover, campaigning over an entire municipality the size of Vancouver rather than being confined to a ward would appear to be wildly costly and ridiculously time-consuming.

Vancouver had a ward system until 1936, but despite a number of efforts to resurrect it, the third largest city in Canada relies on a small community system that would be fine for Vanderhoof, not Vancouver.

With respect to the political party system, I don’t really get it. Since the legislative and executive powers are combined in a city council, why have a structured governing party and an opposition party? Do city councillors serve the needs of their constituents or dabble in party machinations (I suppose the same could be asked of federal and provincial representatives)? Or do municipal political parties allow for a coordinated and possibly powerful voice, particularly for those groups that are disenfranchised such as the poor? This last point is intriguing, especially if one fears that municipal politics can be the playground of cigar-chomping developers who want to use city hall as their own piggy bank. Although I would submit that most Canadian cities haven’t seen these kinds of Tammany Hall shenanigans in ages (although I have many questions about Ottawa mayor Larry O’Brien).

I humbly propose that Vancouver must recognize that its sheer size no longer permits councillors to be elected through general vote; that this amounts to electoral dysfunction, could be grossly undemocratic and unaccountable. But I’m not as sure about terminating political parties. I could be persuaded that political parties may indeed be an essential feature of democracy at the municipal level and I should be more concerned about their absence in many Canadian cities. Convince me!

By the way, a great primer on local government is C. Tindal and S. Tindal “Local Government in Canada”. Check out chapter 9: “The governing machinery”.

I’m off until January 5th, visiting family and enjoying the holidays. Hope all of you have a relaxing holiday season and thanks for joining us at City Caucus.

2 Comments

The Vision council appears to have lost interest in pursuing a ward system for Vancouver now that they've won the election. So, we may have to wait 3 more years before we see this changed for Vancouver. See the movie "Milk" for an idea of how a ward system can change the politics of a city for the better.

You know there are other electoral systems besides wards and plurality-at-large. SNTV would actually be a pretty good fit for Vancouver. I wish more people would give it a look.

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