TORONTO — As a dispute over the size of Toronto council escalated into a full-fledged legal battle between the city and the province, candidates running in the fall municipal election said Tuesday they're left grappling with an unpredictable situation.
The chaos was triggered by a controversial law — known as Bill 5 — that slashed the size of Toronto council by nearly half. The city challenged the law in court and a Toronto judge agreed Monday that passing the bill in the middle of municipal election campaign violated the freedom of expression rights of both candidates and voters.
Unhappy with the court decision, the Progressive Conservative government said hours later that it would invoke the rarely used notwithstanding clause to override the charter and go ahead with its plan to reduce council to 25 members, down from 47.
Some candidates said the tussle between the province and the city has meant they have had to change their campaign plans over the past few weeks. For some, the latest twist has proved too much.
Chris Moise, a trustee with the Toronto District School Board who was planning on running in Ward 25 in a 47-ward election, said he's changed his mind.
"I was overwhelmed and overjoyed when the judge came back with a positive verdict yesterday," he said. "I went from having very high emotions and vindication and a few hours later that changed. ... it takes its toll."
Moise said he has already spent thousands of dollars and he and his team have been canvassing for months based on the 47-ward contest but those efforts appear to have been in vain.
"I followed the rules that were put in place, I put my best foot forward and to have this happen — Bill 5 introduced two-thirds into the campaign — threw us all off," he said. "I felt it was very unfair and unCanadian."
The entire situation has been hard on incumbents and newcomers alike, said Coun. Joe Cressy, who plans to seek re-election but has yet to officially register as a candidate.
"Candidates all have to, in this moment of uncertainty, live day-to-day but prepare for both ...25 and 47," he said.
Voters are also confused about what will happen on election day on Oct. 22, he said.
"The question is not, what is your stance for building more affordable housing or how do we deal with excessive flooding," Cressy said. "The question on the doorstep is, what are the wards?"
The city council is holding a special session on Thursday to consider what options, if any, exist for Toronto to push back against Ford's plans.
Cressy said he hopes that meeting will provide greater clarity for candidates.
"It's important, in a public setting, for all our questions to be answered," he said. "For not only councillors, but frankly residents of our city to understand what the new rules are, what the new timelines are, what the new wards are."
Jennifer McKelvie, a candidate running east of Toronto, was knocking on doors Tuesday outside of what would have been the ward she intended to run in for the 47-seat system. In the 25-ward council, the boundaries extend into new neighbourhoods where she and her team are now deploying resources.
"We're preparing for both scenarios," she said. "Our literature is very generic. It just says 'For Toronto City Councillor'. We didn't put a ward number on it so that we're prepared in any event. We have a good game plan for both situations."
Nominations for council were to close this Friday, but that may change depending on when the province reintroduces and passes Bill 5.
Mayor John Tory conceded Tuesday that it would be very difficult for the city to fight the province's use of the notwithstanding clause. He said he's heard from many Toronto residents who are confused by the actions of the province.
"What I hear is a sense of frustration," he said. "They don't want to have electoral meddling or constitutional squabbling or people attacking each other. They want to see us resolve whatever the issues are to resolve and move forward to do things for them."
University of Toronto professor Nelson Wiseman said candidates will need to assume that the 25-ward structure will be in place because once Ontario uses the notwithstanding clause and passes Bill 5 again there are few options left for the city.
"It certainly is messy from a candidate's point of view," Wiseman said. "Voter turnout could be modest."
Wiseman said the reduction to 25 wards will see some longtime incumbents opt not to run and others square off against each other for a seat. Candidates will have to be strategic about where they seek a council spot, he said.
"It's not as if candidates who were running in Scarborough will now be running downtown," he said. "It's really up to them. They can select whatever ward they want. What it has meant is that some potential candidates have decided not to run."
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press