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Doug Ford achieves the impossible by getting Canadians interested in constitutional reform

Alberta constitutional negotiators Merv Leitch and Peter Lougheed, said by some to be the inventors of the Notwithstanding Clause (Photo: Legal Archives Society of Alberta).

Office-holding Conservative politicians and operatives of their well-funded Astroturf and think-tank support network across Canada have now virtually to a man and woman jumped aboard Ontario Conservative Premier Doug Ford's runaway constitutional train, defending his use of Charter of Rights and Freedoms' override clause to gerrymander electoral districts in Canada's largest city after a court said he couldn't.

Yes, a few retired Conservatives have voiced objections to Ford's use of Section 33, the so-called notwithstanding clause -- former prime minister Brian Mulroney, 79, and former Ontario premier Bill Davis, 89, spring to mind.

But support for the Ontario premier's constitutional jiggery-pokery among Harper-era Conservatives, particularly those who continue to hold office in Canada, appears to be deeply entrenched and well nigh universal. This includes the mealy mouthed Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Scheer, who for whatever reason lacks the inclination to speak clearly in defence of the fundamental rights of Canadians if that means criticizing Ford.

Given the embarrassing fact Ford's motives are transparently to get revenge against his opponents during his single term as a Toronto city councillor, these Conservatives have been enthusiastically repeating the premier's not terribly persuasive talking point that this is just about more efficient government, and never mind the rush.

So it is worth repeating the rough, back-of-the-envelope calculations I published in this space early last summer suggesting what civic government would look like in Edmonton under a plan like Premier Ford's.

The Ontario legislation now being railroaded past the courts with Ford's constitutional override will reduce Toronto City Council from 47 members, which he claims is expensive and inefficient, to 25.

With a city population of 2.8 million, that's one councillor for every 112,000 citizens. This would bring the number of councillors right into line with the number of members of Parliament and members of the provincial parliament (the equivalent of MLAs in other Canadian jurisdictions) in the same geographic area.

By comparison, the Edmonton Metropolitan Region (which has not yet suffered a forced amalgamation by a Conservative government, as Metro Toronto did in 1998) has a population of 1.3 million, 11 MPs and 27 MLAs.

If you count only the councils of the five cities and four immediately adjacent counties, including one that is really a city, in the metro region, Edmonton has 71 municipal councillors for a population less than half of Toronto's.

Add the 11 towns and three villages in the Edmonton Metropolitan Region and you will find there are 157 elected councillors.

That comes to an elected councillor for every 8,280 people. And I have left out First Nations band councils and summer village councils because they tend to be on the rural fringes of the area.

It would be interesting to see what Albertans who think what Ford is proposing in Toronto makes sense would make of a forced amalgamation that would leave a new mega city in the Edmonton area with only about 11 councillors, roughly the ratio Ford proposes and the number of MPs in the Edmonton area.

I can guarantee you most of them -- conservative and progressive alike -- would not like it. The development industry, however, might like it a lot.

And let it be said there is nothing wrong with more than 150 councillors for an area this size. Municipalities, remember, are the level of government that most directly affects our lives, and therefore need a higher percentage of elected representatives by population than do provincial or federal governments.

What Alberta political parties think of Ford's approach to municipal representation and constitutional respect for the decisions of the courts are both excellent questions for voters to raise with all parties in the expected 2019 election campaign in this province.

The human rights, legal rights, and equality rights override was jammed into the Constitution in 1982 as a sop to Conservative premiers who saw plenty of reasons to equivocate about the fundamental rights of Canadians. This was done in order to "patriate" the country's supreme law in a timely fashion.

Like many bad ideas in Canada, this one seems to have originated right here in Alberta -- proposed by the energy minister of the day, Merv Leitch, and put on the constitutional bargaining table by premier Peter Lougheed. Both men are no longer with us to say what they think of Ford's approach.

The Constitution's main proponent, prime minister Pierre Trudeau, hated the idea. But it was packed it into the Charter anyway as a necessary compromise to get the deal required to bring the Constitution home.

Ironically, the same Conservatives who now universally support Ford's refusal to bow to a constitutional ruling by one court enthusiastically support his plan to go to another court to challenge the federal Liberal government's tax policies on constitutional grounds.

In the event the federal government were to lose the Ontario and Saskatchewan governments' carbon tax challenge -- highly unlikely, since the taxation power of the federal government is unequivocal in our Constitution -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could not use the override clause even if he were inclined to, as Section 33 does not apply to that part of the Constitution.

For his part, Prime Minister Trudeau has been unambiguous in his promise he won't use Section 33 to override any federal law rejected by the courts, and this is shaping up to be an excellent issue for his government in the federal election expected soon.

Yesterday, all 25 Toronto MPs -- all 25 of them Liberals -- signed a statement unanimously condemning Ford's use of the override clause. It said in part: "We believe MPPs elected in Toronto have a responsibility to defend the city, its democratic institutions, and the rights of citizens to a free and fair municipal election."

As Toronto Star columnist Tim Harper put it yesterday, Ford has provided the prime minister with the villain he needs to win the next election.

This is because sensible people throughout the country are waking up to the fact the four-alarm constitutional Trumpster fire Ford has ignited threatens all of our fundamental rights.

Remarkably, after only 77 days in government, Premier Ford seems to have achieved the impossible: he has gotten large numbers of Canadians interested in the Constitution again, and in reforming it, no less!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: Legal Archives Society of Alberta

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