The disparity in the populations of the City of Toronto’s wards is large and increasing. This undermines equality of electoral representation, residents’ access to councilors, and the quality of constituency services provided by councilors. All councillors have identical office resources and time constraints, yet some must interact with more constituents than others. This imbalance will be resolved one or way or another before the next election as the City undertakes a review of ward boundaries. The question is — how? And can it be done in such a way as to improve civic democracy, accountability, and responsiveness?
Why we have the wards we have
In 1996 the provincial government aligned provincial ridings with federal boundaries. In 2000 it unilaterally reduced the size of Toronto’s council from 56 wards to 44 by cutting each of the 22 ridings in half.
The ward boundaries imposed in 2000, with ridings shown in colour:
Population growth over the last decade has been uneven
The city as a whole has grown since 2000, however the aggregate picture masks an uneven pattern of population change within the city. Census data show some parts of the city have added population while other parts have shrunk. This is not a downtown versus suburbs issue — population growth and loss has occurred in all parts of the city. As a result, some wards have grown in population while others have shrunk. These two maps show the net change in population at the city block level between 2006 and 2011:
Population gain, 2006–2011, by city block
Population loss, 2006–2011, by city block
Some wards have more residents than others
The variation in population between wards started out small. If the population of all wards had been equal, each would have had about 55,800 residents in 2000. On average, ward populations deviated from this by about 6%. The most populous ward was 19% larger than average, and the least populous about 17% smaller.
In 2011, the average deviation had doubled to 12%. The most populous ward is now 49% above and the least populous 24% below the ward average of 59,400 residents. The following maps show the deviation from the average population in 2001 and 2011. The more populous pink wards have become pinker while the less populous blue wards have become bluer over time, indicating a rising disparity between large and small wards.
Deviation from average ward population, 2001
Deviation from average ward population, 2011
Looking at it another way, the following graph shows ward populations in 2011. Eighteen wards have above average population and 26 below. Fifteen wards have populations more than 10% above or below the average. Seven wards deviate by more than 20%. The most populous ward (23) contains twice as many residents as the least populous wards (18 and 29).
What will Council do?
Under the City of Toronto Act as amended in 2006, Council can define its own ward boundaries without going cap-in-hand to the provincial government or the Ontario Municipal Board. In order to happen in time for the 2014 election, the issue must be resolved before the end of the year.
Following on the 2011 Census, the federal ridings will be reapportioned by the end of 2013. The province will presumably adopt these boundaries. What should Council do?
Will the Council adopt the riding boundaries as-is, resulting in a 26-member council (including the mayor) without a tie-breaker? (Mayor Ford promised in the last election to cut the size of council in half.) Or will Council follow the post-2000 practice of cutting the ridings in half, resulting in a larger, 51-member council? These are questions that Toronto residents should be interested in, as it will affect how they relate to the City, and how the City relates to them.
This map shows how the City of Toronto compares to other municipalities in terms of the number of residents per member of council:
The City of Toronto already has one of the highest ratios in the country. Cutting the size of council in half will double the number of residents per councillor. What impact will this have on democratic representation, especially if individual councillors are not given more office resources?
There are good reasons why we should draw our own boundaries
By drawing its own boundaries, the City can ensure that they are meaningful to Toronto’s many neighbourhood communities. By law, the federal electoral boundary commissions are required to consider “the community of interest or community identity in or the historical pattern of an electoral district in the province” when they define riding boundaries. The commission for Ontario will conduct hearings and make decisions accordingly. Most Canadians and Torontonians are unlikely to be aware that this process is underway, and few will have any idea that it will determine how they elect their municipal representatives. A proactive City-initiated process will be more sensitive to the local community opinion.
Some have argued that it is important that ward boundaries align with provincial and federal riding boundaries. Yet Toronto is the only North American jurisdiction that copies higher-level district boundaries. Aside from a certain cartographic elegance, there is little to be gained maintaining this system. Where representatives at different levels come together, it is usually over specific projects and programs rather than ward- or riding-wide matters. The City can draw its own boundaries without sacrificing the efficiency of decision-making.
The federal boundary-drawing process may not take into account future growth. By virtue of the planning process, the City has a good idea of where population growth will occur over the coming years. The federal boundary-drawing process, however, will only take into account the historical identities and the population on census day 2011. The City’s Executive Commmittee recognized the potential to adjust for future growth when it instructed the City Manager on March 19 to “report on the process of a City of Toronto Ward Boundary review to better reflect effective representation in the City” and to “ensure … that the principles in determining any new Ward Boundaries take into account (a) the impact of community revitalization plans; and (b) population densities anticipated in any future Official Plans and Zoning By-laws.” The wording of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act does not appear to permit the federal boundary commissions will be able to take this information into account.
Torontonians deserve an equal vote for the councillor and equal access to their councillor between elections. At the same time, councillors have only limited resources to reach out to constituents. Equalizing the populations of their wards while taking into account future growth will level the playing field in and between elections.
Most importantly, boundary-drawing is an opportunity for citizen engagement. Starting a City-run process of community engagement, either in advance of the federal process or avoiding it altogether, may pay large dividends. If residents participate in the creation of boundaries that belong to them and mean something to them, government will become less remote.
A place to start would be to work up some scenarios by combining the City’s 140 designated neighbourhoods. To spur community interest and involvement, the City might consider holding contests to name the wards — much as wards used to have names earlier in its history. (The names they have today are identical to those of the federal and provincial ridings, which means that two wards share each name. Wards 29 and 30 are both called “Toronto–Danforth,” for example. Do residents of the Danforth need to be reminded that they live in Toronto?)
This is a modest reform. It would, for example, have no effect on voting for the mayor or the functioning of council — these issues are best addressed through other means. It is compatible with other proposals, including the adoption of instant-runoff voting, extending the vote to all residents rather than just Canadian citizens, the replacement of the campaign donation rebate with an instant matching grant, increasing the number and powers of community councils, and changing the size of council. It will not solve Toronto’s democratic deficit on its own, but it may improve civic democracy, accountability, and responsiveness.
The Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Ontario released its proposed boundaries on October 27, 2012. The proposal allots the City of Toronto 25 ridings. The biggest changes are in North Toronto/North York and in Scarborough. Here is the map:
The Boundary Commission held public hearings in Toronto in mid-November. Everyone had the right to make a deputation, although it seems to me that two lightly publicized days of consultation would seem to do little to stimulate citizen participation and inclusion.
I presented information to the Executive Committee of City Council on March 19, 2012. Download the information sheet. Executive Committee asked staff to the study the issue, including whether it would be possible to draw boundaries that took into account planned and approved development that will occur in the future.