Fixing Toronto’s democratic deficit

March 4, 2012 · 0 comments

in Current Issues


Christopher Hume, Toronto Star
Even without robo-calls and winner-take-all elections, Canada’s claim to democracy is growing strained.

Toronto is no exception. When Zack Taylor of the University of Toronto Cities Centre did a little number crunching recently, his worst suspicions were confirmed: It seems some parts of the city are a whole lot more democratic than others.

According to Taylor, the main factor is population, or rather, differences in the populations of the city’s 44 wards. It turns out that the discrepancy between the most populated and least populated wards is much larger than many realize.

Ward 23, Willowdale, the most populous ward, has 88,000 residents. That’s twice as many as Ward 29, Toronto-Danforth, the city’s least populous ward. It has only 44,000 residents.

In other words, votes cast in Ward 23 count for about half of those in Ward 29.

Wild variations such as this can also be found in the federal and provincial ridings. Generally, the losers are city-dwellers, whose electoral power is worth a fraction of rural voters. The most influential voters in Canada, on a per capita basis, are those in Prince Edward Island. With its population of 140,000, PEI deserves maybe one seat in Parliament, not the four it enjoys.
The Ontario system also favours rural over urban ridings. The most heavily populated riding, Brampton West, has more than 204,000 residents. At the other end of the scale, Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing has a mere 78,000.

There’s nothing especially democratic about any of this, of course. If one person/one vote is your measure, clearly Canada and Toronto fail badly.

Both federal and provincial systems allow for a population variation of up to 25 per cent. Even by that standard, the current arrangement leaves many Canadians disenfranchised. That will change nationally when Ottawa adds 30 new seats some time before the next federal election. Even though Ontario will get 15 of those new constituencies, the province, in particular people living in the heavily populated GTA, will still be under-represented.

In the city, where politics really is local, the mismatch between people and power leaves whole areas of the city shut out. Though the mayoral vote isn’t affected, council membership is.

But for Taylor, “The real issue is that Mayor Rob Ford has promised to cut council in half. He’ll probably suggest we continue to use provincial ridings, which we do now. My argument against that is that the city shouldn’t replicate the province’s logic. The city should have equal wards. This isn’t going to solve all our problems, but the Mike Harris legacy of hitching municipal wards to provincial boundaries doesn’t reflect reality. I think we should draw our own wards.”

And let’s be clear; this isn’t an urban versus suburban problem. In Scarborough, for example, five of its 10 wards are over the city average of 59,000 residents per electoral district.

Let’s also keep in mind that Toronto has gained almost 160,000 residents in the last decade. They should have a voice, too.

Given that so few of us actually bother to vote, the discussion may seem beside the point. In that respect, Canada’s first-past-the-post approach doesn’t help much. It creates winners out of losers and leaves many unrepresented. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shown, a majority of seats can be had with a minority of votes.

The 2006 City of Toronto Act enshrines council’s right to change ward boundaries, which makes it a strictly civic issue. Council, which has final authority in Toronto, must speak on behalf of all of us, regardless of the ward in which we live.

Christopher Hume can be reached at

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