Pro­test­ers heckle Doug Ford

Premier de­fends moves on coun­cil-cut­ting plan

Standard-Freeholder (Cornwall) - - ONTARIO NEWS - PAOLA LORIGGIO and SHAWN JEF­FORDS

TORONTO — On­tario’s leg­is­la­ture plunged into chaos Wed­nes­day as pro­test­ers and most of the Op­po­si­tion were ejected for dis­rupt­ing the gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts to re­vive a bill slash­ing Toronto’s city coun­cil nearly in half just days af­ter a judge found the leg­is­la­tion un­con­sti­tu­tional.

Shouts erupted from the pub­lic gallery and some heck­lers were led out in hand­cuffs as Premier Doug Ford ar­gued he was pro­tect­ing democ­racy by in­vok­ing a con­sti­tu­tional pro­vi­sion to over­ride the court de­ci­sion, which found his plan to cut coun­cil dur­ing an elec­tion cam­paign vi­o­lated free­dom of ex­pres­sion rights.

“This is about preserving the will of the people, this is about preserving democ­racy,” Ford said, cit­ing his Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives’ vic­tory in the spring elec­tion.

Asked whether he be­lieved in the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms, the premier said a demo­crat­i­cally elected gov­ern­ment should not be de­railed by a “po­lit­i­cally ap­pointed” judge. Ford has main­tained cut­ting Toronto city coun­cil to 25 seats from 47 is nec­es­sary to stream­line de­ci­sion-mak­ing and save tax­payer money. The coun­cil-cut­ting bill and the not­with­stand­ing clause that will en­sure its im­ple­men­ta­tion — a pro­vi­sion be­ing used for the first time in On­tario — were in­tro­duced by Ford’s gov­ern­ment Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon fol­low­ing a com­mo­tion from the Op­po­si­tion benches.

The New Democrats at­tempted to drown out the read­ing of the bill by bang­ing on their desks, prompt­ing the Speaker to kick most of their ranks, in­clud­ing Leader An­drea Hor­wath, out of the house. Hor­wath said her party mem­bers had launched their protest to show they wouldn’t ac­cept Ford’s “heavy­handed” de­ci­sion lightly.

Ear­lier in the day, mem­bers of the pub­lic in the leg­is­la­ture voiced their own dis­con­tent by cough­ing in uni­son to drown out the premier when he tried to speak. That dis­rup­tion quickly turned into a se­ries of shouts and heck­les.

“Shame on you, this is not democ­racy,” one man shouted at the premier. “We are the people.”

The com­mo­tion drew re­peated rep­ri­mands from the Speaker, who briefly re­cessed the house. The pub­lic gallery was cleared of all spec­ta­tors and at least two pro­test­ers were hand­cuffed and taken away by se­cu­rity of­fi­cers.

Laura Bar­rett, a Toronto sup­ply teacher who lined up to watch the de­bate but couldn’t make it in­side be­fore the gallery was shut down, said she wanted to show her dis­ap­proval at what she called a “con­sti­tu­tional tragedy.”

“It’s to­tally an­ti­thet­i­cal to the idea of democ­racy and it’s a real mess,” she said of Ford’s de­ci­sion to push ahead with the coun­cil­cut­ting plan, call­ing it ab­surd to re­duce democ­racy to vot­ing ev­ery four years. “That’s the whole point of the char­ter, it out­lives and out­lasts any one po­lit­i­cal move­ment or party ... it goes to our fun­da­men­tal rights as people. So don’t tram­ple on those, but es­pe­cially not for this, this is the pet­ti­est thing.”

The ac­tion at the leg­is­la­ture took place dur­ing an emer­gency ses­sion called by Ford — his sec­ond since tak­ing of­fice in June — af­ter the court de­ci­sion that went against his gov­ern­ment ear­lier this week.

The prov­ince’s use of the not­with­stand­ing clause to forge ahead with their coun­cil-cut­ting plans has drawn con­dem­na­tion from crit­ics, who’ve said the pro­vi­sion was not de­signed to deal with this kind of is­sue.

Toronto Mayor John Tory has said in­vok­ing the not­with­stand­ing clause is a “gross over­reach” of the prov­ince’s pow­ers, adding city staff will ad­vise coun­cil­lors at a spe­cial meet­ing on Thurs­day how the mu­nic­i­pal­ity can pro­ceed with the up­com­ing Oct. 22 elec­tion.

Hor­wath ac­cused the premier of tram­pling people’s rights to pur­sue a per­sonal ven­detta against Toronto, where Ford served one term as a city coun­cil­lor and un­suc­cess­fully ran for mayor.

“It’s a black eye for our prov­ince,” she said. “It’s a shame that our premier is such a petty, vin­dic­tive hu­man be­ing whose fo­cus is on him­self and his own quest to show those folks in Toronto that he’s the boss of them.”

In­terim Lib­eral Leader John Fraser said his party would in­tro­duce an amend­ment to the bill that could delay its pas­sage af­ter it is rein­tro­duced. “There was chaos in­side here to­day,” he said. “The premier has made a de­ci­sion that has cre­ated in­sta­bil­ity and un­cer­tainty and di­vided people.”

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the premier ap­pears to be­lieve that win­ning a ma­jor­ity means he is above the law.

“It is wrong for the premier to at­tack our fun­da­men­tal char­ter rights for po­lit­i­cal gain,” he said in a state­ment. “He is bring­ing a dan­ger­ous view of democ­racy to Queen’s Park, pred­i­cated on his be­lief that he can rule by de­cree.”

Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts said it’s dif­fi­cult to gauge how the move is play­ing out among res­i­dents in the ab­sence of pub­lic opin­ion polls on the is­sue, but pre­dicted it would have a po­lar­iz­ing ef­fect.

Jonathan Rose, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Queen’s Univer­sity, said the de­ci­sion may ap­peal to some of Ford’s base be­cause it tar­gets “many people’s favourite whip­ping-boy,” the City of Toronto. But he said Cana­di­ans con­sis­tently rank the char­ter as one their most prized in­sti­tu­tions and some may con­clude the premier is against it.

“I think more rea­soned, mod­er­ate con­ser­va­tives might won­der why the premier is us­ing such a pow­er­ful in­stru­ment on an is­sue that’s ... not im­por­tant in the minds of vot­ers,” he said.

Ford has said Tory leg­is­la­tors will be free to vote as they wish on the coun­cil-cut­ting bill and a ma­jor pub­lic ser­vice union urged them to break from party lines and op­pose it.

CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

A pro­tester in the pub­lic gallery shouts at MPPs at the On­tario Leg­is­la­ture in Toronto on Wed­nes­day.

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