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Conservative takes lead from Liberals in Toronto byelection as slow results near end

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TORONTO – An urban Toronto riding that has been a Liberal-safe seat for three decades appears to be on the verge of falling to the Tories in an upset win for Pierre Poilievre and his Conservatives.

If Don Stewart hangs on to win, it will be a major blow to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has been under pressure to resign as his party falters in the polls.

Stewart, a financial executive running in his first election, trailed Liberal Leslie Church for hours as poll workers moved at a glacial pace to count ballots that were stacked with independent candidates thanks to a protest group trying to make a point about the first-past-the-post system.

But when the fourth last of 192 polls reported just before 4 a.m., Stewart jumped into a lead of nearly 500 votes.

Both Stewart and Church closed up their campaign parties hours earlier when it became clear the vote count wasn’t going to be done any time soon.

Early in the evening longtime Conservative organizer and informal Poilievre adviser Jenni Byrne wrote off her party’s chances in an interview with the CBC. When Stewart visited his campaign office around 11:30 p.m., he was trying to be upbeat but wasn’t quite succeeding as the polls were not going his way.

“Let’s not give it up,” he said before reciting Leader Pierre Poilievre’s alphabet soup slogan.

“Axe the tax, build the homes, fix the budget, stop the crime,” he said, drawing big cheers. “Let’s bring it home!”

Church took to the stage at her campaign office an hour after Stewart, and was more buoyant but not ready to celebrate.

“We are feeling great about the result,” Church said at her campaign party around 12:30 a.m. to the delight of her supporters who chanted her name and shouted, “Call the race.”

But she did not.

“We’re not quite there yet,” she said.

While her Liberal colleagues lauded her as a great candidate with deep political experience as a chief of staff to multiple cabinet ministers including finance and heritage, the campaign brought challenges.

That included a cranky electorate that had lost patience with Trudeau as inflation soared, housing became unaffordable and hate crimes rose amid the Israel-Hamas war.

Toronto-St. Paul’s, in the city’s midtown area, includes some of Toronto’s wealthiest addresses as well as an above-average number of renters, and one of the largest concentrations of Jewish voters in the country.

Carolyn Bennett, the former Liberal cabinet minister whose resignation in January triggered this byelection, won the seat nine times for the Liberals, and all but once by more than 20 percentage points.

The Conservatives haven’t won a single seat in Toronto proper since 2011.

The seat was considered a must-win for Trudeau and a loss is a massive blow that could be the final verdict before he steps down after 11 years as Liberal leader. The Liberals threw everything they had at the riding, with more than a dozen cabinet ministers knocking on doors for Church.

But the Liberals’ poor showing will not be the only talked about political story around parliamentary water coolers on Tuesday.

The other big talker is the ballot protest by a group trying to draw attention to the weaknesses of a first-past-the-post voting system, which stymied poll workers who had to open thousands of ballots containing 84 names that were each nearly a metre long and individually folded up like an old-school map.

With the logistics of counting every ballot by hand, the results trickled in slower than a sloth on his way to Sunday dinner.

Elections Canada warned before the polls closed that things were going to move slowly and they were not kidding.

The protest group Longest Ballot Committee stacked the ballot with more than 75 independents, almost half of whom ran a year ago in a Winnipeg riding to make the same protest.

While the final votes were cast at 8:30 p.m., not a single result was reported for more than an hour.

Elections Canada spokesman Matthew McKenna said things were just progressing very slowly and was not aware of any issues with the ballots other than their unusual length.

The glacial pace of counting outlasted the Stanley Cup final hockey game by hours.

It outlasted the CBC, whose live stream with host David Cochrane ran a heroic four hours long without commercial breaks. But finally, they too threw in the towel when it appeared it would be hours more before a winner could be declared.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2024.

-By Mia Rabson in Ottawa and Sheila Reid in Toronto.

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10,000 unionized employees return to work, stores to reopen Tuesday: LCBO

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TORONTO – Workers are back on the job today at Ontario’s main liquor retailer, but the Liquor Control Board of Ontario says stores won’t be open for business until Tuesday.

The union representing 10,000 of its workers announced Sunday members had ratified a new deal with the liquor retailer to end a strike that had closed its stores for two weeks.

The ratification came after the deal seemed to be up in the air on Friday.

Both OPSEU and the LCBO had announced a tentative agreement had been reached but the union said the strike would continue after the employer refused to sign a return-to-work protocol.

The retailer said the union had introduced new monetary demands and the employer would file an unfair labour practice complaint.

But the LCBO issued a statement on Saturday saying reopening plans were back underway, and a return-to-work protocol signed by both parties does not include any “new monetary items.”

OPSEU had said they believed Premier Doug Ford’s plan to expand alcohol sales to convenience and grocery stores would threaten union jobs and the public revenue the LCBO provides to the province.

Ford has sped up those plans since the strike began on July 5, allowing grocery stores already licensed to sell beer and wine to also sell ready-to-drink cocktail beverages as of Thursday.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.



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Markets bet on second Bank of Canada interest rate cut coming this week

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Economists and market watchers are betting the Bank of Canada will deliver another interest rate cut this week amid mounting evidence that inflation issustainably easing.

Expectations that the bank will lower its overnight lending rate when it makes its scheduled announcement Wednesday have been high since last week’s release of the latest Statistics Canada inflation report, which showed annual inflation cooled to 2.7 per cent in June.

The inflation reading was less than the 2.8 per cent that markets had been expecting and has helped to build market confidence that the Bank of Canada may be poised for a second rate cut, on top of the 25-basis-point cut it announced last month.

“I think it’s very likely the Bank of Canada cuts rates again next week. It wouldn’t really make sense from a strategic point of view to only cut rates 25 basis points and then leave them there and see how the economy responds, because that wouldn’t really cause a lot of change in the trajectory of the economy or inflation,” said Royce Mendes, managing director and head of macro strategy at Desjardins.

“So it always made sense that the Bank of Canada was likely going to do at least two rate cuts in a row before pausing. And now recent data has reinforced that view.”

Last month’s interest rate cut, which reduced the central bank’s key rate from five to 4.75 per cent, was the first in more than four years.

In addition to the latest inflation report, Mendes said, recent data showing rising unemployment as well as subdued expectations for growth by Canadian businesses all support the prospect of another cut.

While inflation remains higher than the Bank of Canada’s two per cent target, Mendes said he believes delaying any longer could have negative repercussions.

“The interest rates at the levels they are (currently) are actually very restrictive. You can see it in consumer spending trends. You can see it in the housing market,” Mendes said.

“I would say if (the Bank of Canada) didn’t cut next week, it would signal a much greater willingness to tip the economy into recession, just for the sake of getting inflation down a few tenths of a percentage point more.”

The latest Statistics Canada report on retail sales Friday showed Canadians reined in their spending in May as retail sales dropped 0.8 per cent to $66.1 billion.

Sales were lower in eight of the nine subsectors tracked, the agency said.

“What the Bank of Canada is trying to do is just reduce the amount of restraint it is placing on the economy. It’s not trying to stimulate the economy, it’s just trying to reduce the amount of headwinds it’s providing,” Mendes said, adding a second rate cut could make Canadian consumers begin to feel more confident about spending again.

The most recent data on the Canadian job market shows the economy stalling in June, losing 1,400 jobs while the unemployment rate rose to 6.4 per cent, from 6.2 per cent in May.

The June result was the highest reading for the unemployment rate since January 2022, another indication that raises the odds of the Bank of Canada lowering rates this week.

But while most market watchers believe an interest rate cut will come this week and be followed by additional cuts later in the year, that view is not unanimous.

Clay Jarvis, mortgage and real estate expert for NerdWallet Canada, said this week’s decision could go either way.

“Considering how cautious the bank is, reducing the overnight rate when inflation is still well over two per cent would be fairly uncharacteristic,” Jarvis said in a note.

If the cut does happen, shaving 25 basis points off of variable interest rates is unlikely to be enough to shake up Canada’s housing market significantly, Jarvis added, as buyers grapple with the prospect of higher mortgage payments.

A survey conducted by CPA Canada (an organization which represents professional accountants) and BDO Debt Solutions conducted shortly after the June rate cut found half of Canadians say interest rate hikes have negatively impacted their debt loads, with seven out of 10 saying the June cut had no impact on their financial outlook.

The survey also found 52 per cent of respondents believe continued interest rate cuts won’t go far enough to reduce the financial strain.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2024.



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A look at one year of strong mayor powers in Ontario

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TORONTO – In the year since so-called strong mayor powers were granted to the heads of council in a swath of Ontario municipalities, most mayors have used them sparingly — if at all — though in some corners a sense of unease with the sweeping authority remains.

As of this month, nearly 30 mayors have had the ability for a year or more to propose bylaws and pass them with the support of one-third of councillors, veto bylaws and hire and fire department heads, among other powers.

Premier Doug Ford’s government later doled out the powers to many more mayors, even when they were not interested in receiving them, and Ontario now has a total of 46 strong mayors.

Many of them are in the province’s largest cities, and the chair of the Ontario Big City Mayors group said by and large the mayors have “exercised enormous restraint and responsibility” in exercising the powers.

“Where they’ve used some of those discretionary tools it’s been after careful thought and consideration of the best interest, long term, of the community,” said Marianne Meed Ward, mayor of Burlington.

Some of the higher-profile uses include Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath using the powers to advance an affordable housing development on two municipal parking lots, and then-Mississauga mayor Bonnie Crombie using them in favour of fourplexes.

In Caledon, Mayor Annette Groves recently rescinded her use of strong mayor powers to push forward 12 rezoning applications for 35,000 homes after the move caused pushback in her community. She said she will instead have the issue go through the regular council process, but defended the usage.

“I am not abusing the use of strong mayor powers,” she said in an interview. “I believe that I’ve used it only where it’s necessary to carry on … the priorities of the province to get housing built.”

The provincial government framed the powers as a set of tools in service of reaching the goal of building 1.5 million homes in Ontario by 2031. Time is ticking by, Groves said, and municipalities like Caledon need to meet current and future housing needs.

“If we don’t start planning, and we don’t start getting ahead of this growth, the growth is going to get ahead of us,” she said.

The strong mayor powers are broad, and only a few of them directly relate to housing, in law. The powers to propose and pass a bylaw with one-third of council support and to veto a bylaw must relate to building housing or related infrastructure.

The law also allows mayors to direct staff to conduct research and write reports, as well as appoint the chief administrative officer, department heads, chairs and vice-chairs of local boards, and establish and dissolve committees, though they can delegate those powers to council.

The majority of items on municipalities’ websites listing uses of the powers are the mayor “approving” a bylaw — in other words, indicating they will not veto it.

Mayors are required under the law to prepare and propose a budget, though some say they are in effect still working collaboratively with their council. Other mayors have used the strong mayor budgetary powers to impose a cap on property tax increases, institute a property tax deferral for seniors, reopen the document to add millions in new spending to revitalize a downtown, and add funding to put “Aurora” in capital letters outside that community’s town hall, similar to what is seen in Toronto.

Rachel Gilliland, a councillor in Aurora, said there is too much grey area in what the strong mayor powers can be used for.

“Strong mayor powers to me, really (do) attack democracy,” she said. “It certainly has not, in my opinion, done what it’s supposed to be doing, at least in Aurora.”

Aurora’s council received a legal opinion that the decisions are not reviewable or appealable, and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing has said it is up to the municipalities to determine if the uses of the powers are in accordance with the law.

“(That) just really opens up Pandora’s box,” Gilliland, said. “It doesn’t matter what the mayor vetoes or what the mayor decides. The mayor has the sole discretion and control to do whatever they so choose.”

Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier, who has used the powers for housing projects involving more than 4,000 units, suggested the accountability mechanism for the strong mayor powers is the election cycle.

“People ask me, ‘Did you consult on certain things?'” he said. “Well, our consultation is every four years. It’s called an election. And if you don’t like what we’re doing, then that’s your opportunity to change.”

Collier said the powers have been “incredibly helpful” in speeding up the creation of housing in Ajax. In one case he used them to approve up to 62 storeys for two residential towers near a GO Transit station even though the town’s official plan has 25 storeys as the maximum. In another case a multi-residential development made design changes that resulted in the loss of some parking spaces and Collier used the powers to ensure the project didn’t have to go back through a committee of adjustment.

St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe, who has used the powers a few times including directing staff to prioritize development applications, said the reception to the powers has been largely positive, though he understands some people’s hesitation.

“When the powers came in there was a lot of confusion as to what exactly they could be,” he said.

“I had folks in the development industry coming forward and saying, ‘Well, you know, I’m running into this problem. I need you to use your strong mayor powers to get me past this point.’ It’s like, ‘No, your issue, sir, (is) building code related, and you actually have to meet the building code. I can’t waive that.'”

Leanne Caron, a councillor in Guelph, is among those uneasy with the process. Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie has used the powers a number of times, including to direct staff to research establishing a structured encampments site – which would involve tiny homes – and Caron said she supports what he has used them for, just not the actual use of the powers.

“Nothing that the mayor has done using strong mayor powers, in my opinion, is anything that wouldn’t have happened with the full support of council,” she said.

“We were all elected to have a voice in the direction our community goes and that’s what the Municipal Act was designed to do, was to put the power in the collective, and not the power of one.”

Guthrie said in the case of the encampments report, his directive does bypass the step of council debating whether they want the report to be done, but at the end of the day the council and community still debate the issue after the report is submitted.

“If we wanted to look at getting tiny homes, there was, in my mind, a very big issue of timing,” he said. “We needed to order them and/or build them much prior to the winter coming.”

Guthrie also noted that he delegated the personnel-related powers, saying it’s important to have a divide between the administrative and political sides of city hall.

The Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario, which represents municipal professionals, said that a little more than half of the strong mayors have retained the power to appoint the chief administrative officer and about 35 per cent of them retained the power to appoint department heads.

“Right from the outset, we were very concerned with the opportunity to essentially politicize the municipal public service and we remain concerned,” said executive director Dave Arbuckle.

“Say a CAO is hired directly by a mayor. That staff is wondering where potentially that individual’s loyalties lie. Is it to the municipality as a whole? Is it to council? Is it to just the mayor?”

Innisfil Mayor Lynn Dollin is among the mayors who were not interested in getting the powers and have not used them beyond what the law requires, such as taking responsibility for the budget. She delegated everything she could.

“I’ve always been one of those people that think if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together,” she said.

“I just simply believe you can only go so far by using those powers because you’re going to run into obstacles. So I’m convinced that if it’s a good idea, I’m going to be able to convince five of nine of my council that it’s a good idea.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2024.



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