Doug Ford's move to slash council barely scratches the surface of his powers, experts say

Ontario Premier Doug Ford's surprise announcement about slashing Toronto's city council nearly in half is just the beginning of his powers. Experts say there's nothing stopping him from making even bigger changes. "What the premier wants, the premier can get," said one.

From taking over the TTC to abolishing city governments, Ontario's new premier has few checks on his power

With a strong majority mandate, experts say Ontario Premier Doug Ford will have few constraints when it comes to reshaping the province. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

If new Ontario Premier Doug Ford has the will, he can shake up the province in almost any way that he wants.

That's the message coming from political and legal experts a day after Ford announced a plan to slash Toronto's city council nearly in half in the midst of its election campaign.

While the move came as a shock to many, including Toronto Mayor John Tory, the power play barely scratches the surface of Ford's vast powers as Ontario's leader with a strong majority mandate.

"What the premier wants, the premier can get," said University of Toronto political science professor Christopher Cochrane. "There are extremely few checks on his power."

From the plausible to the nearly inconceivable, here are some other changes Ford could make during his time in office:

Transforming (or abolishing) the TTC​

During the provincial election campaign, Ford said the province would take over the Toronto Transit Commission's subway infrastructure.

But if he wants, Ontario could take over much more than that, with no recourse for the city.

Under Ontario law, any service or department operated by a municipal government could be uploaded to the province through legislation.

Political science professor Christopher Cochrane says there are few checks on the new premier's powers. 'The office of the premier and the prime minister are far more powerful in Canada than the office of the president in United States,' he says. (University of Toronto)

"It absolutely could take the TTC," said Cochrane of the new PC government.

If it did, the province would have free rein to reshape, amalgamate, or even abolish Toronto's transit system as it currently exists.

Cancelling bylaws and pilot projects

The province can also adjust a city's ability to create bylaws and pilot projects.

For example, the King Street pilot project — which prioritizes streetcars, cyclists and pedestrians along a busy stretch of downtown Toronto — could be effectively cancelled.

In late 2017, Ford called the pilot project a "disaster" in a Toronto Sun editorial column. Through legislation, he could now revoke the city's jurisdiction to run the experiment.

"The province can decide, 'we have other reasons and we think these are bad ideas,'" said Wayne Petrozzi, a politics professor at Ryerson University.

Where municipal governments create bylaws and projects within a system of rules, "Doug Ford is now in charge of that system of rules," Cochrane explained.

Premier Ford has been a vocal critic of the ongoing King Street pilot. He now has the power to forbid the city from running the project. (CBC)

Abolishing municipal governments

Under Canada's constitution, municipalities officially exist as "creatures of the provinces," meaning that their very existence in Ontario is completely dependent on the will of Queen's Park.

If the government chose to do so, the PCs could abolish any city in Ontario, "with the stroke of a pen," according to municipal lawyer John Mascarin.

"The province may do with them as they wish," added Petrozzi. "There aren't constraints."

While the political destruction of Ontario's cities might sound extreme, it has happened on smaller scales before.

In 1998, Ontario dissolved the six constituent cities of Toronto in the last round of amalgamation. In the 1970s, then premier Bill Davis also created multiple regional governments, dissolving dozens of municipalities to do so.

In 2006, Toronto was granted broader powers than other Ontario cities through the City of Toronto Act. However, those powers were granted by the province, meaning the act could be changed or abolished without city input.

Toronto Mayor John Tory called Ford's plan to slash city council 'absolutely not right,' but he may have little recourse to fight the change. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Massive changes to education, Crown lands, healthcare

Experts say Ford's government could make even more outlandish, but legal, changes.

For example, Queen's Park has the ability to abolish Ontario's school board system, explore or develop Ontario's Crown lands and even introduce a privatized healthcare system.

While some of those changes may be within Ontario's constitutional abilities, experts say they are ultimately unlikely, as they could lead to Ottawa cutting off funding to Queen's Park.

"The financial impacts could be catastrophic," said Cochrane of a hypothetical overhaul of the healthcare system.

While constitutional challenges could be mounted if the province attempts some of the more extreme changes, Petrozzi says the public itself could also pose a formidable restraint on the provincial government.

"Parliament is limited by what the public is prepared to tolerate," he said.

But after Friday's announcement slashing Toronto city council, some say Ford appears to be willing to push the boundaries of his office into potentially uncharted territories.

"It really will be the Doug Ford show for the next four years" Cochrane said.

About the Author

Nick Boisvert

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Nick Boisvert is a reporter and one-man band video journalist based in Toronto. He previously worked for the CBC in Vancouver, Windsor and Kitchener-Waterloo. Outside work, Nick enjoys cooking, following the NBA and listing things in threes.