It started with a coughing fit from the public gallery intended to drown out Premier Doug Ford’s statements about defending democracy in the Ontario legislature Wednesday.
Then the jeering started. “Shame!” shouted some people from the gallery. “Bully!” “We are the people.” “This is not democracy.”
Just minutes into Question Period, several older members of the public (National Observer observed three at least) were escorted out in handcuffs and security cleared about 50 people from the public galleries and closed them.
“I am 77 years old and I hate the destruction of democracy,” a woman shouted as she was led out of the legislature.
A defiant Doug Ford pursued a plan to suspend the constitutional rights of citizens in Canada’s largest city on a day that saw "grandmothers" taken away from the Ontario legislature in restraints and agitated NDP MPPs ejected for banging on their desks.
Wednesday’s emergency session was called to deal with the premier’s reintroduction of legislation, that had been struck down by a court, to cut Toronto city council in the middle of an election. The NDP leader called Ford “out of control” and the Green Party leader said his actions were “chilling.”
While Bill 5, also known as the Better Local Government Act, passed first reading Wednesday afternoon in a vote of 63-17, the Ontario attorney general's office filed a motion to appeal and stay the court ruling.
The motion states that Justice Edward Belobaba "overstepped what was necessary to remedy the constitutional breach he found, as well as the proper role of the Court in mandating that the pre-existing 47 ward regime be revived."
In a ruling released Monday, Justice Belobaba struck down Bill 5 for violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The legislation, which Belobaba called “unprecedented,” mandates a cut to the number of Toronto city councillors from 47 to 25 just weeks away from the Oct. 22 municipal election.
Mere hours later, Ford invoked the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution for the first time in the province’s history to override the judge's ruling.
“This is about protecting the will of the people. It’s about preserving the rights of the people,” he said on Wednesday, claiming that 2.3 million Ontario voters in the June provincial election gave his government a mandate to reduce city government. Critics have noted he made no mention of such a plan during the campaign.
'Is this what leadership is all about?'
Green Leader Mike Schreiner described the scene at the legislature on Wednesday as "shameful," as, he wrote on Twitter, "Now constables are handcuffing grandmothers and clearing the galleries at Queen’s Park."
QP is suspended. Now constables are handcuffing grandmothers and clearing the galleries at Queen’s Park. This is what happens when the Premier tramples on people’s Charter rights. Shameful. The PC caucus needs to put the people before their leader. #onpoli— Mike Schreiner (@MikeSchreiner) September 12, 2018
A 10-minute recess was called amid the commotion as the galleries were cleared and closed to the public. When debate resumed inside, members of the public lined up outside Queen’s Park, chanting “Let us in!”
According to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, demonstrations and rallies can take place on the legislature grounds after an application is filed, though most parliaments and legislatures ban people sitting in public galleries from participating in proceedings.
Members of the NDP and Liberal Party applauded the protesters’ efforts, citing the empty public galleries as an indication of Ford’s “dictatorial” decision to suspend Charter rights. At several points during election period NDP leader Andrea Horwath pointed angrily at the empty galleries in response to the premier’s claim that Bill 5 was “for the people.”
“It was a disgraceful moment to watch literally grandmas and grandpas get dragged out of the gallery,” Horwarth told reporters outside. She called an “out of control premier.”
“Is that what leadership is all about? Is that what the people of this province from one end to the other want to see their premier do?”
Horwath attacked Ford’s cabinet too for “supporting a premier who thinks the only time to be held accountable is election time. “It’s pretty worrisome,” she said. “Its obvious that Mr. Ford is pretending to be or is ignorant of the facets of democracy in Ontario and Canada.”
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser expressed concern about the precedent Ford was setting with the invocation of the notwithstanding clause. “If he’s willing to do it on a matter like this when else is he going to do to? Or when will someone in the future be emboldened to use it because its been used in this circumstance?” he told reporters. “This decision has far reaching impacts in how the clause is used across the country.”
Fraser said Ford has a “flawed view of democracy.”
“The government has a duty to consult with people. This notion of I am the person from whom the people speak through. Not. Its all of ours in the legislature,” he said.
Schreiner, the Green Party leader, said he was “appalled” by the events.
“He received 40 percent of the vote. Only 16 percent of Ontario voted for him. But the Charter protects 100 percent of people’s rights,” Schreiner told reporters. “So for him to suggest he can overturn the courts, take away our rights, in order to bring forward something he didn’t even campaign on, it’s appalling, its dangerous. Its chilling.”
Mulroney says court ruling "wrongly decided."
Speaking at an event in Ottawa on Tuesday, former prime minister Brian Mulroney said that his views about use of the notwithstanding clause haven’t changed over the years.
“I had difficulty with anybody invoking a provision that would override the Supreme Court of Canada,” he said. “That’s why I opposed it then, and that’s why I oppose it today.”
Outside the legislature, his daughter, Attorney General Caroline Mulroney told reporters she remains “fully supportive” of the government’s decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause against the Superior Court ruling, which said was “wrongly decided.”
“My father’s views on the clause have been well documented,” she said. “But he recognizes, and he said yesterday, that it is a legal tool available for democratically elected legislatures to use.”
Mulroney said she wanted to ensure Toronto voters have clarity on the rules governing the election.
“We don’t have the luxury of time,” she told reporters. “That is why we are invoking this legal tool.”
“It is our job to present bills, legislation and it is the right of people to litigate and for judges to decide, that is the way the system works,” Mulroney said. “We are following the system by filing an appeal and we are using the notwithstanding clause to make sure we can introduce legislation so that voters in Toronto have clarity on election day.”
“The people of Ontario have the final say, that’s the principle of our parliamentary democracy,” Mulroney said. “Section 33 was put into the Charter to give that flexibility, to give that tool to legislatures who are democratically elected and want to advance their public policy options, (to) have the power to do so.”
The motion of appeal filed on Wednesday claims the attorney general was treated unfairly by not being allowed sufficient time to respond to all the court challenges. Her office, the motion says, received an "avalanche" of evidence and wasn't allowed sufficient time to digest the material, respond to the judge's findings or offer remedies. The motion asks the court for time to present new evidence and conduct cross-examinations in the matter.
"Enacting the legislation after the 2018 election would not have achieved the objective of better approaching voter parity for the 2018 election or improving the effectiveness and efficiency of Council for the upcoming term," said the motion filed in court.If a stay is granted, the Oct. 22 election could proceed with 25 wards pending a hearing on the appeal.
“Allowing the 25-ward election to proceed would avoid cost, disruption and inconvenience, rather than cause it,” the motion reads. It would be in the “public interest” to move forward with a 25-ward election, the province argues in its written materials. Allowing the 47-ward election to continue would cause "irreparable harm."
Bill 5 passes first reading, again
When Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs Steve Clark stood up in the legislature on Wednesday afternoon to reintroduce Bill 5, NDP MPPs loudly protested by slamming their desks and yelling on "Nay!," refusing to come to order.
The speaker resorted to kicking out each MPP one by one until only a handful remained. The first to be escorted out by the Sergeant-at-Arms was NDP leader Andrea Horwath.
Outside the legislature, Horwath, standing with her entire caucus, said her party will do "everything that we possibly can" to slow down the passage of the legislation that continues to create civic unrest in Toronto.
"What we did today is represent all of those people who are frustrated, who are upset with the actions of this Ford government in the choice they have made to invoke the notwithstanding clause and trample on people's Charter rights," Horwath told reporters after the protest.
The new version of the bill, once again, aligns the city's municipal ward boundaries with provincial and federal electoral districts and reduces the number of council seats from 47 to 25. The municipal election date continues to be set for October 22, but the nomination period has been extended to two days after the bill receives royal assent.
Fraser said he believed the NDP "wanted to make a statement," but the Liberal party members "felt very strongly that it was important to be there to vote against the bill."
"We’ll be there voting against it at first reading, and second reading and third reading," he told reporters outside the legislature after the vote. Both Fraser and Horwath said they will be filing a reasoned amendment so that the debate can occur without the notwithstanding clause in question.
Green Party leader Schreiner said he "respected" the NDP's decision "because the premier has resorted to extraordinary efforts to undermine our charter rights and I think it requires an extraordinary response."
Members of the PC caucus remained unamused by what they called the NDP's "political theatrics."
"The city of Toronto is not a model democracy," said Stephen Lecce, a PC MPP and parliamentary assistant to the premier, adding that he had never seen a legislative response as displayed by the NDP on Wedensday. "It’s a binary choice, really. A party that is standing up for 20 political jobs and a party that’s standing up to create good private sector jobs."
"The fact that the premier has moved with that speed shows his commitment to provide clarity to the candidates and the people of Toronto," Lecce said.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 9:56 a.m. EST on Thursday, Sept. 13.