The Draw the Lines ward-boundary review highlights a growing and changing city, and how it might achieve better representation.
At the penultimate meeting of the City’s first round of 12 ward-boundary review public meetings, a gentleman who’d sat silently for the previous hour raised his hand to ask a question. Would any of this, he wondered, help people out with real problems? Like poverty, or affordable housing, or income inequality?
It’s a good question; something of a stumper, actually. No one in the room—including City staff facilitating the meeting—could answer it. Will ward reconfiguration help in any way to address some of the serious and long-term issues the city faces? Could it even, if that were a goal? Or is this review simply an organizational readjustment?
Regardless, it’s an overdue adjustment. The last ward realignment happened in 2000, in the early days of amalgamation. Based on 1991 census data, that ward rejigging was hastily slapped together by the provincial government, which reduced the number of city councillors from 56 to 44. It was a number arrived at by the same slapdash approach the Harris government took to the entire amalgamation process: they took the 22 provincial ridings (which had been reduced to mirror the federal ridings), cut them in half and—voila!—44 wards.
Fifteen years later, the city has changed. In time for the 2015 election, the federal riding boundaries have been adjusted, increasing from 22 to 25 ridings to reflect Toronto’s population growth. The provincial government is expected to follow suit. While it certainly isn’t necessary for the city to follow the same maps of the federal and provincial governments, judging from some of the public feedback at consultations held in December and January, there will be pressure to go that route.
The real pressure to redraw the lines of the city, however, stems from Toronto’s robust population growth and the unevenness of its distribution. Population-wise, some wards have grown more unequal than others. This imbalance creates inequitable local representation, and makes it more difficult for the most populous wards to serve their constituents effectively.
It is impossible to draw up wards with the exact number of residents to a person, in part because other considerations factor into new ward boundaries. Keeping “communities of interest” and “traditional neighbourhoods” together, respecting the history of certain wards, and adhering to “natural and physical boundaries” like ravines, rivers, or the 401 are all elements that affect the final outcome. But it’s the population divergence in the current ward configuration that is the primary driving force behind this.
The provincial mandate states that the population of any ward cannot be 25 per cent higher or lower than the average ward. Currently, we have differences ranging as high as 45 per cent above average, and this inequity is only projected to get worse by 2031 as the city grows.
If you live and vote in a ward like Ward 23, Willowdale, you’re one of over 88,000 documented residents, according to the 2011 census. This is about double the population of Ward 29, Toronto-Danforth, which has a population of just under 45,000 residents.
One vote in Ward 23 does not equal one vote in Ward 29. It’s worse if you consider the representation, where 88,000 people rely on the same political infrastructure as half that many people in another ward.
This disparity might serve as one answer to the gentleman who asked the “How does this matter?” question. We should try to ensure that everyone has fair and effective access to their representation at City Hall. Without that, some voices remain unheard; the barriers of marginalization too high to climb.
This early in the process, the importance of the review isn’t always evident, at least judging by the low turnout at most of the first round of public consultations. Unfortunately, the three meetings in Scarborough and three in Etobicoke were conducted in the run-up to the Christmas holiday season; weekday sessions were also sparsely attended. Often, those present in an official capacity—the consultant team, councillors, or staff of various levels of government—far outnumbered the general public.
Interest picked up in the new year at the Toronto-East York and North York meetings. One meeting in a North York library had 25 or 30 people, some in their capacity as a member of a residents or business association, but most simply engaged citizens. More councillors showed up to these meetings too, reflecting a heightened sense of community involvement.
At the meeting in East York, Councillor Mary Fragedakis (Ward 29, Toronto-Danforth) may have struck close to the truth about the public interest in the process when she asked staff, “Do you think you’ll get more public involvement when there’s something to criticize?” After all, it all seems pretty theoretical at this stage. When the staff report returns with lines on a map sometime between May and November, that’s when the real jostling will begin.
When the issue was first raised during the 2010 election, then mayoral candidate Rob Ford used the opportunity to run with his “cut council in half” mantra. The idea has gained traction, including among some councillors. At one of the meetings, Councillor Jim Karygiannis (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt) said that people living in high-rise towers don’t need the same kind of representation as their single-family household counterparts. After all, he argued, can’t they just call building management?
No doubt, fewer city councillors will be a major talking point as the review progresses. Keeping our wards based on the new federal ridings, at least superficially, makes some organizational sense.
But the ward-boundary review, although seemingly dry and bureaucratic, is more than that: it’s a chance to reshape and re-imagine the city itself. Toronto is not the same city it was in 2000, or 1991, and it’s time for our political representation to reflect that. It’s a review that has long-term significance, too, as the new wards will be in place until 2031.
We should seize this moment to create a made-in-Toronto solution, rather than simply adapt to the form decided by the level of government that has the least to do with the city’s daily operations. It’s an opportunity to more fully make Toronto one city rather than 6 former municipalities.
Then maybe we can start to deal with the problems and issues we all face.