Ontario’s Bill 5 and What It Means for Toronto’s Upcoming Election

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Happening Now Thursday, September 06, 2018 View Count = 3584

Ontario’s Bill 5 and What It Means for Toronto’s Upcoming Election

Toronto's City Hall towers

In this continually updated blog post, the Samara Centre for Democracy keeps readers up-to-speed on a controversial issue: the Ontario government’s Bills 5 and 31, and what they mean for Toronto’s upcoming municipal election.

Here’s what’s been going on:

May 1st

Nominations open for the office of mayor, councillor, and school board trustee for the Toronto municipal election planned for October 22nd.

June 30th

The Ontario Legislature introduces Bill 5, the Better Local Government Act, 2018which reduces the number of Toronto City wards—and city councillors—from 47 to 25. It also cancels the election of regional chairs in the York, Peel, Niagara, and Muskoka regions.

According to the Premier, the legislation is intended to reduce costs and improve decision-making at Toronto City Hall. Neither change was mentioned in his election platform.

July 27th

Nomination period for office of mayor closed.

July 30th

First Reading of Bill 5 in the Ontario Legislature.

July 30th

Toronto City Council candidate Rocco Achampong applies to have Bill 5 reviewed by the Ontario Superior Court and delay the Bill coming into force until the Court rules on its legality.

Aug. 2nd, 7th, 8th

Second Reading of Bill 5, with debates.

Aug. 14th

Government insists on Time Allocation on Bill 5 (to limit discussion), Third Reading, with debates, and Royal Assent is given. Changes to the number of wards and their boundaries immediately come into effect.

Aug. 20th

Toronto City Council votes 27-15 to join Achampong’s legal challenge. They also vote to exhaust all legal means (including to appeal any rulings not in their favour) and to delay the municipal election if the timing of the court case intervenes with the election proceeding as planned for Oct. 22nd.

Aug. 31st

The province, the City, and others who oppose Bill 5 present their arguments to Ontario’s Superior Court.

Sept. 10th

Justice Edward Belobaba rules that the province crossed the line, finding that changing the number of wards during the election violated candidates’ and voters’ Charter rights to freedom of expression.

Afternoon, Sept. 10th

Premier Doug Ford holds a press conference and says that the province will appeal Judge Belobaba’s decision and invoke the notwithstanding clause (Section 33 of the Charter). His rationale to overturn the Court’s decision is that he was given a mandate to govern by being elected Premier.

His government also schedules the next session of Queen’s Park to begin earlier than anticipated and to hold late-night and weekend sittings in order to repass the bill to reduce the size of Toronto’s City Council in time for the municipal election.

Sept. 13th

As expected, and in addition to reintroducing Bill 5/31 with a notwithstanding clause, the province formally appeals Judge Belobaba’s ruling.

It also files a motion to stay the order, which would allow the Ontario Court of Appeal to suspend the effects of Judge Belobaba’s ruling (which reinstated the 47-ward election) until the appeal is heard. The case is scheduled to be heard on Sept. 18th.

Sept. 13th

Toronto’s City Clerk, Ulli Watkiss, tells council that she is concerned about the city’s ability to hold an election on schedule that meets legal standards.

Sept. 13th

Toronto’s city council votes to initiate legal challenges to Bill 31. It also votes to request that the federal government use its “disallowance” power to strike down Bill 31. This power formally allows the federal government to overrule a provincial law, but it has not been used in more than 70 years.

Sept. 14th

Nomination period for the office of councillor and school board trustee close.

Sept. 18th

Arguments by the province and the city are heard for the motion to stay (suspend Judge Belobaba’s decision). The province states that it will not go forward with Bill 31—nor use the notwithstanding clause—if the decision is stayed. The panel of three judges say they will provide their decision on Sept. 19th.

Sept. 19th

The stay is granted. Associate Chief Justice Alexandra Hoy, Justice Robert Sharpe, and Justice Gary Trotter rule that Judge Belobaba’s decision will probably be overturned, and should be placed on hold until the appeal hearing (likely after the municipal election).

Bill 5 stands for the time being. Toronto’s municipal election proceeds with a 25-ward system.

The City Clerk says she is awaiting a second order from the Ontario Court of Appeal to provide additional direction to conduct the election, including dates for re-opening nominations and other matters. 

Oct. 22nd

Municipal election is scheduled to take place.

Download a condensed version of this timeline here (last updated September 14th).


Originally, the City of Toronto was set to implement an updated 47-ward model for this fall’s municipal election (up from 44 wards, with each ward electing one councillor). The 47-ward model would have about 60,000 people represented by their councillor in each ward. With 25 wards this number would approximately double and would match the federal and provincial ridings’ (maps in this article compare the old and new boundaries). Candidates running for positions as city councillors and school trustees will need to decide whether to continue their campaigns in the reconfigured wards. The elections for York, Peel, Niagara, and Muskoka regional chairs are now cancelled, and these positions will be appointed by their regional councils.

On September 10th, Superior Court Justice Belobaba ruled that Bill 5 was unconstitutional. In response, the Ford government ended the summer break of the Ontario Legislature early, in order to reintroduce the Bill—now Bill 31—but adding a notwithstanding declaration under section 22 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The new Bill would almost certainly pass, which means a 25-ward model would be used in the upcoming election, and Bill 31 could not be the subject of a Charter challenge for the next five years.

The province also filed for an appeal of Justice Belobaba’s decision. Since the appeal hearing will be held after the municipal election, the province filed a motion to stay the order (to decide whether the effects of Justice Belobaba’s ruling should be placed on hold until the appeal hearing). 

*UPDATE* On September 19th, a panel of three judges ordered the Superior Court decision stayed. Bill 5 is therefore back in effect. As a result, the province will not to seek to pass Bill 31. The election will proceed with 25 wards, although further legal challenges are likely.


To accommodate changes in population density and growth, electoral boundaries are regularly revisited at all levels of government to ensure that each electoral district represents approximately the same number of people. The process of revising boundaries takes into consideration community input, existing neighbourhoods, history, and physical characteristics. In 2014, the City of Toronto’s Ward Boundary Review committee hired a team of independent experts to consult extensively with the public, and after several options were proposed, debated, and rejected, it planned to implement the committee's final recommendation—a system of 47 wards—for Toronto’s 2018 municipal election.


...candidates and their campaigns?

Many campaigns officially began as soon as nomination papers were filed, which opened May 1st for all races. The nomination deadline has been extended until September 14th for City Council and school board races—so all candidates who filed under the 47-ward model can either re-submit their nominations for the 25-ward system, or withdraw. Under a 25-ward system, most candidates will need to significantly readjust their campaign strategies; some incumbents are now running against each other. When they decided to run in the 47-ward system, candidates will have often left their jobs or taken a leave of absence and committed themselves to competing in the election.


The back-and-forth switches between 47 and 25 wards this late in the election process leaves less time for Torontonians to organize all-candidate debates, speak to new candidates when they go door-to-door, or review individual platforms, which may result in a less informed and engaged electorate. As of September 19th, it is not clear who will be on your ballot come October 22nd. (Keep checking the City of Toronto Elections website for updates.)

...the Clerk of Elections at the City of Toronto?

*UPDATE* The logistical preparation for running an election under different wards will be “an absolutely huge task,” as Toronto’s City Clerk put it. The Clerk said it usually takes eight to ten months to prepare for an election. The last weeks before an election are generally devoted to producing the final ballots and preparing the polls for a smooth election day, revising the voters’ list, and running advance polls. There’s now more to do with less time, which can risk the integrity of the process. For example, at the time of writing, the City’s website states that advance voting dates are under review. The Clerk has said publicly in the past week that she doubts the city’s ability to hold an election which meets legal standards set out in the Municipal Elections Act. This could result in legal challenges to the results of the election, if it does go ahead on October 22nd.

...other municipalities?

Although Premier Ford said he doesn’t plan to alter the number of councillors in other municipalities, the precedent set by Bill 5 spells an uncertain future for many, including some regional chairs in other municipalities.


  • Bill 5/31 has caused controversy because it has allowed the provincial government to very quickly make substantial changes to municipal political representation without a robust, inclusive and transparent public process. For more on this, read this piece by the Samara Centre’s Mike Morden.

  • Bill 5/31 also draws attention to issues concerning the powers of provinces and municipalities. Cities are formally under the provinces' jurisdiction, but the approach adopted by the current provincial government may increase complaints from the major cities that they should have more autonomy that is protected by the constitution.
  • *UPDATE* More immediately, there are real risks to the integrity of Toronto’s municipal elections, given the many last-minute changes. Several deadlines set out in Bill 5—such as the last day for candidates to register in their new ward—have already passed, and the feasibility of holding advance voting remains uncertain.
  • In the longer run, the dramatic increase in the size and population of each ward may reduce councillors’ responsiveness to their ward’s residents. In proportional terms, Toronto would have the smallest city council of any major city in Canada.
  • The changes would likely result in modest cost-savings, but their effect on the overall functioning and effectiveness of city council are uncertain.
  • How to improve decision-making at City Hall remains a vitally important conversation, but time and space for that conversation is absent.
  • *UPDATE* If you thought Bill 5 was controversial when it was first passed, it’s far from having been settled. With further legal challenges expected, there will likely be significant debate on the appropriateness of introducing these changes in the midst of an election, and their impact on democratic participation and representation. The Premier’s willingness to use the notwithstanding clause is also likely to provoke more discussion about the appropriate relationship of courts and legislatures, and the centralization of power in the Canadian political system. 


  • Some community or political groups have organized around both ‘sides’ of this issue. Reach out to them to see how you can get involved.
  • Keep an eye out for public events held on this issue and attend to make sure your opinion is communicated.
  • Write a letter to the editor to your local newspaper or community newsletter.
  • Start a petition or protest if you are unhappy with how things are proceeding.  

Last updated: September 19th

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