Crossing Lines

Long before I was elected, people knew me as “the politics guy” and would ask “who do I talk to about ______?” Very often, the person was barking up the wrong tree: what they thought was a provincial issue was actually municipal, or federal. Sometimes it wasn’t a government issue at all, actually a union or professional association matter. The lines between one jurisdiction and another are not clear, and I don’t blame anyone for being confused about it. Much of the work of politicians, at every level, is figuring out who should be responsible for what – and it keeps shifting, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad. Looking through the news this morning, I saw an example of each.

The Mayor of Ontario

The Ford family has always been controversial in Ontario, but it’s almost a shock to look back on Doug Ford’s political career and remember that it started on Toronto council during his brother Rob’s (notoriously bizarre and tragic) tenure as Mayor.

Rob and Doug Ford standing in front of a large screen with text that says Ford Nation.
The Ford brothers used to have a radio show, and for a short time, a tv show.

Ever since Doug Ford shifted to provincial politics, there have been questions as to how much he’s actually left Toronto municipal politics behind. In 2018, for example, in the middle of a municipal election, the Ford government changed the number of wards in the city – meaning that candidates for municipal council suddenly found themselves running for seats, and in wards, that no longer existed. The previous year, the city of Toronto had gone through an extensive process to increase the number of wards from 44 to 47 to ensure that wards had proportional size; the Ontario Municipal Board upheld the city’s decision, despite objectors appealing in favour of a 25-ward system. So candidates started campaigning in May of 2018 for the new 47 wards, only to have the newly elected Ford government unilaterally impose the 25-ward system that the city, and the OMB, had rejected. Ontario courts ruled that this move was unconstitutional; Ford then threatened to use the Notwithstanding Clause, a clause in the constitution that allows provinces to grant themselves an exemption from the constitution on a particular issue. Ultimately the Supreme Court of Canada ruled (in a 5-4 ruling – so a very close one) that the provincial government’s decision was not unconstitutional; but it still left many wondering why a new Premier would go to the trouble of overruling the elected council of the province’s largest city, the province’s own municipal regulator (the OMB), and even threaten to overrule the constitution of Canada (via the Notwithstanding Clause) to make a decision that, arguably, was none of his business.

Last year Ford waded into municipal politics again, this time to give the Mayor of Toronto more power – including the ability to pass resolutions with only a minority of council’s support, among other major boosts to the mayor’s power. Toronto councillors immediately petitioned the province to scrap the bill, but Ford held firm. The bill also gives Strong Mayor powers to Ottawa, but the Mayor of Ottawa has been vocal about saying that he doesn’t want those powers, and would not use them. Former mayors and political scientists decried the decision as grossly undemocratic.

Now, despite saying he’s going to stay out of it, Ford has repeatedly made public statements about Toronto’s mayoral by-election. His statements openly criticize some candidates, and explicitly and implicitly support one candidate, a former police chief.

Through the rules of elections, the power of mayors, and now through using his platform as Premier to influence the mayoral campaign, Ford continues to blur the lines between the province and municipalities. (It isn’t just Ford who does this, but he does it more than anyone I’ve ever seen, and he’s doing it right now.) While it is most certainly the provincial government’s job to make the rules that govern municipalities and determine the roles and functions of provincial and municipal governments, that’s ideally a collaborative process between two levels of government, rather than a top-down process of control and interference.

Municipal Exemptions to Federal Laws

Not all of the blurring of the lines between jurisdictions is a matter of top-down control; sometimes it’s a matter of collaboration toward shared priorities.

In the news this week, the City of Kingston is looking for resident support to ask the federal government for an exemption to drug laws. Last year, the federal Ministry of Health and Addictions issued just an exemption for the province of British Columbia. The result would be the decriminalization of drugs in the City of Kingston: anyone caught with a small amount of illegal drugs would not face criminal penalties.

Chart showing opioid deaths in the Kingston health region jumping up to 200 in 2018, from less than 100 the year before.
Opioid-related deaths in the Kingston region have increased dramatically in recent years. Source:

The goal of this policy change would be to treat drug addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. There’s mountains of evidence that criminalizing drug use does nothing to help get people off of drugs, and that including policing and prison in the response to the opioid crisis has made things significantly worse. Shifting the approach toward harm reduction has already been proven to produce better outcomes, but federal drug policy still criminalizes possession. These exemptions, along with a 2020 guideline from the Public Prosecution Service of Canada that suggests that police not prosecute people for simple drug possession, are small steps (and experiments) toward decriminalization more broadly.

What’s interesting about this latest step is that it’s coming from the bottom up: the City of Kingston is preparing to ask the federal government for a local exemption to a national law in order to improve local attempts to address the overdose crisis. Kingston doesn’t have the ability to change drug laws, but they can petition the federal government for a local exemption; if they can get their own residents to support the idea (not an easy task, given the stigma against drug addiction), they’re likely to get that exemption, which could radically change the way that they respond to their local crisis, hopefully with much better results.

Crossing the Streams

Each stream of government, or jurisdiction, has its own tools, powers, and strengths; and their own mandates or areas of authority. It’s tempting to never cross the streams; the results of doing so can be unpredictable.

Image of the Ghostbusters with text saying DON'T CROSS THE STREAMS IT WOULD BE VERY, VERY BAD.
Total protonic reversal would be very, very bad. Total political chaos isn’t much fun either.

But those areas of authority and responsibility overlap and meet in many different places. What happens when they meet is up to those in power: will the different jurisdictions collaborate, or collide? That’s a matter of choice. The lines between jurisdictions can blur because one level is exerting undue influence over another; or they can blur because people on both sides of the line are working together. Crossing the streams intentionally and collaboratively can give both jurisdictions a power boost, and take down major problems.

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