Amnesty condemns ‘disgraceful’ use of obscure clause to cut Toronto council

Ontario Premier Doug Ford
Ontario Premier Doug Ford is facing criticism for using the notwithstanding clause

A Canadian premier’s use of an obscure constitutional opt-out clause has prompted criticism from Amnesty International Canada.

The rights group called Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s use of the clause to force through cuts to Toronto city council “contemptuous” and “disgraceful”.

In July, the premier said he would slash the council by half, arguing it was bloated and inefficient.

But a legal challenge stopped his plan in its tracks.

What happened?

On Monday, an Ontario judge ruled that the law cutting the size of Toronto’s council from 47 wards to 25 violates the right to free speech because it was introduced so close to the October municipal election.

In response, Mr Ford announced he would use the Constitution’s “notwithstanding clause” to overrule a judge’s decision.

Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, said in a statement: “No government in Canada should take the contemptuous step of disregard for the Charter of Rights that the notwithstanding clause offers them.”

What is the notwithstanding clause?

The clause allows a government to have a law operate in spite of a right found in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is essentially an opt-out option that can be used for a five-year period.

It only applies to three sections of the Charter: the “fundamental freedoms” of religion, expression, and association; the right to life, liberty and security of the person; and freedom from discrimination.

The clause has been used only a handful of times outside the province of Quebec.

What’s the reaction been like?

The move by the right-leaning politician garnered fierce criticism from opponents who called it an undemocratic use of power, and sparked a debate even among conservatives and the legal community.

The judge’s decision has also been described variously as flimsy, poorly reasoned, incoherent, and “looney tunes”.

Supporters of Mr Ford’s say his use of the clause is a justifiable response to what they see as judicial activism.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he is “disappointed” with Mr Ford’s decision but that the federal government will not get involved.

The fight over the cuts has thrown the upcoming municipal elections into disarray, creating uncertainty some five weeks before Torontonians go to the polls.

On Thursday, the city council held an emergency meeting on how to respond to the premier’s decision to go ahead with the cuts.

City staff said they have printed two sets of voter cards – one for the eventuality of 47 wards, one for the 25 – which are scheduled to be mailed to voters soon.

“Every day that goes by creates greater uncertainty and raises in me a huge concerns over the proper conduct of this election,” city clerk Ulli Watkiss told councillors.

Mr Ford says his government invoked the clause so Toronto’s election could proceed on time while they appeal against the judge’s ruling.

Who is Doug Ford?

Mr Ford is the brother of late Toronto mayor Rob Ford and the recently elected premier of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province.

His Progressive Conservative Party won the June provincial election on a populist platform that included the promise to end government waste.

He previously served as a Toronto city councilor for a single term during his late brother’s tumultuous tenure as mayor, which was marked by his admission to using crack cocaine while in office.

The premier says cutting city council would save taxpayers C$25m ($19m; £14.6m) and end “gridlock” at City Hall.

Others have accused the premier of a “petty vendetta” against the body he fought during Rob Ford’s time as mayor.


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