Ontario’s social services minister on Tuesday defended the Ford government’s intent to suspend constitutional rights, following a speech where she discussed the welfare of citizens.
Lisa MacLeod was speaking at an Ottawa Board of Trade event on Sept. 11, the morning after Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he’d invoke the constitution’s notwithstanding clause, something never before done in the province, in order to override a court ruling.
“The Canadian constitution’s very clear, section 92, that municipalities are creatures of the province,” said MacLeod after her speech, in response to National Observer questions about the Ford government’s threat to suspend rights.
Bill 5, the legislation that cut the number of Toronto wards from 47 to 25, was struck down Monday by an Ontario Superior Court judge on the basis that it violated freedom of expression.
In response, Ford said he would implement the changes anyway, in essence ignoring the courts, because he was elected on a mandate to reduce the size of government.
Former Ontario premier Bob Rae has compared that to living in an "elected dictatorship." And speaking at a separate event in Ottawa, former prime minister Brian Mulroney said he would have "difficulty with anybody invoking a provision that would override the Supreme Court of Canada."
“That’s why I opposed it then, and that’s why I oppose it today," said Mulroney about the clause.
Asked on Tuesday whether she felt she had campaigned on suspending constitutional rights, MacLeod said “the Ford administration campaigned on making government more affordable, and more efficient.”
Our Attorney General. Those interested in constitutional history and matters may recall who our PM was during the last rounds of constitutional talks. Our Province does have exclusive jurisdiction over all municipalities, this includes Toronto. https://t.co/yvTuKgNjQu— Lisa MacLeod (@MacLeodLisa) September 10, 2018
'I have nothing more to add'
The minister also suggested that the political battle over Bill 5 was similar to the battle over municipal amalgamation in the late 1990s.
“We put forward a bill, a piece of legislation, Bill 5, and constitutionally we have the right to make decisions on municipalities, as we did here in 2000 when we amalgamated Ottawa,” she said.
If the government moves to invoke the constitutional override, it would throw another wrinkle into a Toronto election campaign less than six weeks away from voting day, Oct. 22.
Mulroney's daughter, Caroline Mulroney, is Ontario's attorney general. The senior Mulroney said he hadn't discussed the issue with her.
MacLeod — who, in addition to social services, is the minister of children, community, women’s issues and immigration — wouldn’t answer directly if she would support suspending constitutional rights to protect the government’s rollback of Ontario’s sex education to a curriculum from the 1990s.
“The government’s made a decision on the notwithstanding clause with respect to Bill 5, and that’s what we’ll go back to the legislature for tomorrow,” she said after being asked about the sex-ed policy and the Constitution.
Pressed again, she echoed her comments: “The government made a decision yesterday that we’re going to support the notwithstanding clause for Bill 5. I have nothing more to add on the constitutional issues.”
'Zero intention' to reduce Ottawa city hall
The event, called the Mayor’s Breakfast and attended by Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, brought together a number of local business leaders.
It was also a showcase for the new Ottawa Board of Trade — which was created over the summer from a merger of the West Ottawa Board of Trade, the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and the Orléans Chamber of Commerce.
Ford hinted to a radio station on Monday evening that he's been getting pressure to cut Ottawa city council similar to the way his government wants to cut Toronto, but that he had no plans to do so for now.
“Second to Toronto, the number one amount of calls...is from the Ottawa and Ottawa region talking about that but, for now, we’re going to leave well enough alone," he said.
If Ottawa were required to comply with Bill 5 and base its ward boundaries on federal and provincial riding lines, the number of wards would likely drop from 23 to eight.
But MacLeod, who is the MPP for Nepean-Carleton in Ottawa’s southwest, emphasized the government wasn’t about to do that.
“I know, having spoken with the premier's office last night, there's zero intention to reduce the size of city council here,” she said.
The Premier was clear in his AMO speech that he has no intention to reduce the size of council in Ottawa.— Lisa MacLeod (@MacLeodLisa) September 11, 2018
'The best social program is a job'
Before her political career, MacLeod worked as a city bureaucrat in Ottawa. In her speech she said she learned public service and how to “leverage relationships” from her time working for the city.
She said the Ford government was elected “overwhelmingly by the people, for the people" and assured the crowd that “I am Ottawa’s voice at Queen’s Park, not the other way around.”
"He truly is a premier for the people," she enthused.
MacLeod also commented on the Ontario government's battle with the federal government over immigration issues. Ontario is a "welcoming place for immigrants and refugees,” she began, but added later that she had tried to have a conversation with the Trudeau government about its “failed border policies.”
Much of her speech was devoted to the welfare of citizens. She said one in seven Ontarians was “living in poverty” and that she took issue with “siloed” social programs that weren’t, in her eyes, getting the job done.
"The best social safety net is a compassionate society,” said the minister. “The best social program is a job.”