Moments before the Ontario legislature convened on a Saturday afternoon, a crowd of people grew steadily on the lawn at Queen’s Park.
They gathered as Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government pursued an emergency session of the legislature to push through legislation that would reduce the size of Toronto’s city council in the middle of a municipal election campaign.
On the steps, a small handful of protesters stood, before a barricade and between two security guards, displaying signs of their discontent with the Ontario government until they were ordered to relocate.
“You don’t change the rules in the middle of the game,” one read, affixed to a hockey stick.
“Secede,” read another.
Liza Zawadzka, whose placard said “Hands off the Charter,” explained that security had told them public access had been moved to behind the barricades.
The protesters said that this is their property.
The exceptional circumstances followed a week in which Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba sent the Ford government back to the drawing board on its plans for Toronto. Belobaba ruled that his previous attempt at the legislation, Bill 5, violated the constitutional rights of the people in the city. Ford, who has pledged to lead a government “for the people,” responded by announcing plans to re-introduce the bill, while invoking powers, never used before in Ontario, to suspend Charter rights and override the court’s decision.
Ford’s efforts were expected to continue through a rare overnight session of the legislature that was scheduled to begin after midnight on Monday morning.
“The Order in Council for the Ontario Legislature to resume sitting at 12:01am on Monday has been signed,” Ford said in a tweet posted on Saturday night. “My cabinet colleagues and our caucus are working hard to ensure the timely passage of the Efficient Local Government Act.”
The Order in Council for the Ontario Legislature to resume sitting at 12:01am on Monday has been signed. My cabinet colleagues and our caucus are working hard to ensure the timely passage of the Efficient Local Government Act. #onpoli #topoli pic.twitter.com/G7LAgU9tv6— Doug Ford (@fordnation) September 15, 2018
Tory House Leader Todd Smith said that they’re willing to do “whatever it takes” to get it passed.
All this is happening a few weeks before Toronto residents are scheduled to elect their new city council and mayor on Oct. 22.
Inside the House on Saturday, some MPPs stood up during a period reserved for member statements and petitions, using their time to speak up against the legislation as Tories glanced at their phones and chatted amongst themselves. As one of the New Democrats addressed the legislature, Zawadzka was ejected from the public gallery after shouting, "Hey Ford, pay attention." Ford, at the time, was chatting with members of his caucus, and didn't appear to be distracted by the disruption.
Ford's government introduced its new version of the legislation, invoking a provision known as the notwithstanding clause that would allow it to use special powers to temporarily suspend constitutional rights, in order to get it adopted again, ahead of the upcoming Oct. 22 Toronto election. Now known as Bill 31, the legislation proposes to shrink Toronto’s city council to 25 members from 47. But this time, the Ford government is including the never-before-used constitutional powers in the bill to overrule the court's decision.
But less than an hour after convening on Saturday, the house adjourned until Monday after the government failed to get unanimous consent to pass the new bill. The NDP also asked the legislature's speaker to reject the legislation based on arguments that the two bills are substantially the same and therefore should not be voted on in the same session and that the bill should not proceed while the subject of a legal proceeding.
Former Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, as well as a handful of NDP legislators, also filed petitions for the government to withdraw the bill.
Bill 31 is “blatantly discriminatory” to Toronto citizens, Wynne said, since it did not call for a similar reduction in the number of seats on any other city council in the province.
In the halls of Queen's Park after the adjournment, NDP Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath called on Ford’s PCs to withdraw the legislation.
“We have folks who can’t afford to buy a house, who can’t afford their rent, we have many serious problems still in our hospitals around hallway medicine, and this government is focused on one thing and one thing only, which is Doug Ford’s grudge match with Toronto city councillors,” Horwath told reporters.
“There’s one easy way to stop this circus from happening and that is to simply withdraw Bill 31, allow Toronto’s elections to go forward the way that they were supposed to, and let’s move on to some of the things that people in this province are very concerned about.”
Belobaba heard the case against Bill 5 through an expedited court hearing on Aug. 31 in an effort to settle the controversial policy in time for the municipal election to go ahead as planned.
The case against the legislation was launched by several municipal candidates, as well as the City of Toronto.
On Sept. 10, Belobaba released his decision, striking down Ford’s bill on the basis that it unduly infringed on Charter rights without compelling justification. Six hours later, Ford announced he would invoke the notwithstanding clause, or Section 33, to revive the bill, saying his cabinet has a mandate for smaller government. They have also filed a legal appeal.
The Tories did not mention any plans to shrink the council of Ontario's most populous city during the provincial election campaign leading to Ford's electoral victory on June 7. But Ford has argued that the legislation is part of his mandate to save taxpayer money by shrinking the size of government.
In the unlikely event that Speaker of the House, Ted Arnott, were to decide that either of the NDP’s points of order were valid, that would delay the bill’s passage at least until an appeal decision is made.
Otherwise, debate on Bill 31 will begin as clocks strike midnight and Sunday turns into Monday. The government hoped to speed up the process to make time for Ford and other ministers to attend an international plowing contest in rural south-west Ontario beginning on Tuesday.
The legislation is expected to pass later this week.
Green Leader Mike Schreiner, speaking to reporters before the session began, called the wrangling a “manufactured crisis” for which Ford and his government would be held accountable.
“He seems to be willing to waste taxpayers money for this, he seems to be willing to put the municipal election in chaos because of this, and he’s obsessed with it,” Schreiner said. “Why aren’t we talking about the real issues that affect the people of Ontario.”
He said the Green Party of Ontario wants to know how much public money is being spent getting MPPs back from their constituencies and paying for political and security staff to work overtime.
“How much money is actually being spent on this, we’d like an answer to that question,” he said.
“It’s very disturbing when a government interferes, for the first time in Canadian history, in the middle of an election, creates chaos and dysfunction, and now tries to blame the opposition parties and others for it. This is a manufactured crisis. The premier wears this,” he said.
Ford has claimed that the council cuts would net taxpayers $25 million over four years, or $2.08 per resident.
“People did not elect this premier to waste their money and time on a petty political battle with Toronto,” wrote Schreiner in a statement issued Saturday morning. “They did not elect him to trample on their Charter rights because he personally doesn’t like downtown Toronto city councillors.”
Toronto’s city clerk, Ulli Watkiss, has been caught in the crosshairs of the ever-changing election framework, declaring that it is “becoming virtually impossible to carry out” a fair election. She filed papers Friday seeking intervenor status in the upcoming hearing at the court of appeal, hiring outside counsel.
A slippery slope
In response to the emergency session, journalist and civil rights activist Desmond Cole had posted an invitation for a picnic, for whoever would like, to join “in a show of strength and community” outside Queen’s Park.
People responded, tricking in slowly after 11 in the morning, until the east lawn had filled with children and adults, playing frisbee, handing out Freezies, and activists had posted before the steps with a petition calling for Attorney General Caroline Mulroney to “stand up for democracy.”
Selwyn Pieters, one of the lawyers representing council candidate Rocco Achampong, says he attended as a citizen concerned about the invocation of the notwithstanding clause. His client’s interests, he said, intersect with his in this case and that “having the feel of the activism certainly ties in to our case as well.”
Unlike many spectators, Pieters says that Bill 31 passing is not “a foregone conclusion.”
“There’s so many moving parts and whether it’s in the legislature or in the litigation, or in the activism or in the grassroots advocacy, that we have to see how things play out. Because things are changing very rapidly.”
On Thursday, the NDP Opposition had declared it would challenge Bill 31 under two different standing orders: one which would disallow introducing two undeniably similar pieces of legislation in one legislative session, the other preventing the debate of legislation moving through the courts.
Some residents fear that if Bill 31 is adopted, there’s nothing to stop Ford’s government from undoing gains won in the past.
“Once Ford gets away with this, everything is on the table,” said Chris Higgins, who moved to Toronto from Oshawa 45 years ago.
A retired graphic designer, Higgins says she’s been involved politically since the gay rights and feminist movements of the 70s and 80s. She was one of the people thrown out of the legislature earlier this week, after public gallery occupants erupted spontaneously, coughing and yelling, to rebuke the premier.
Sitting on a bench outside Queen’s Park, Higgins spoke with Sheryl Pollock – they went to Wednesday’s sitting together – and Briton Van Weeren, also there that day. Their guest passes were numbered 53, 10, and 11, they told National Observer.
“I’m delighted to see young queer people come out for this,” said Higgins. “Our rights – our adoption rights, our same sex marriage rights – everything is going to be up for grabs if he gets away with this. Right now he’s gerrymandering but he’s like a bull in the china shop. He just wants to do it all.”
As the three spoke with National Observer, a passer-by stopped by to confirm that they were among the protesters in the gallery over the week and tells them, “Well done, thank you. Standing up for what’s right. Thank you.”
After Speaker Arnott said he wanted the galleries clear, they made a point of continuing to shout down the proceedings.
“At that point, there’s nothing to lose,” said Van Weeren, an undergraduate student of commerce and health management. “If we’ve got to leave, you might as well leave with your voice heard.”
Van Weeren said that they’re there because, for the first time in their life, the government has “decided that the Charter is there to run roughshod over.”
Going straight for the “big red button” of Section 33 is unacceptable.
“They’re opening the Pandora’s Box of Canadian democracy,” said Van Weeren, “and it’s not okay.”
The fight has become very personal for some.
Chris Moise, who had registered as a city council candidate for what would be a new ward, says he feels like this fight has been going on for much longer than its seven weeks.
“I haven’t come to grasp with how I feel emotionally,” says Moise on the Queen’s Park lawn, who adds that “being around other people actually helps my mood.”
“Some days, I’m energized, other days I’m in disbelief and confusion,” he says of the maelstrom that’s engulfed the municipal campaign in the wake of Ford’s bills.
He participated in the Bill 5 legal process as an intervenor, along with candidates including Achampong, Jennifer Hollett, and Lily Cheng.
A Toronto District School Board trustee and former hospital councillor and police officer, Moise says he knows his own experiences make him well-suited to representing his would-be constituents, lending a voice to their own struggles, including those between the police service and people of colour.
But Moise will not run in a 25-ward system he says, where he would be running against the popular, progressive and incumbent councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, and says he was looking forward to the opportunity to discuss important issues with community members as a representative.
“This started as a Torontonian fight and quickly became a national fight,” he says, adding that he’s a little “disheartened” more people haven’t joined the charge.
The 25 MPPs for Toronto who have spoken out against Bill 31 represent a good first step, Moise says, but more leadership is needed from the prime minister and the opposition leader in Queen’s Park.
The authors of the notwithstanding clause spoke out against its use in this manner on Friday and Amnesty International also condemned Ford’s actions as “contempt for human rights.”
But, says Moise, the volume needs to go up.
“If this happened in another country, we as Canadians would stand up and take notice and say this is wrong,” said Moise.
“We need to look inwards at ourselves at this point in time and reexamine the way we view ourselves because if we sit on the sidelines now, then we lose the authority, the moral highground to actually go out. We really do. So there’s a lot of lessons here to be learned from all of this.”
Editor's note: This post was updated at 9:05 pm with additional comments from Ontario MPPs and residents who attended the gathering outside the legislature.