By Chad Ingram
Published Sept. 18, 2018
Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MPP and Ontario Labour Minister Laurie Scott is defending the Ford government’s unprecedented use of the notwithstanding clause to override a judge’s decision, allowing the provincial government to proceed with a reduction in the size of Toronto city council in the midst of an election campaign.
On Sept. 10, the justice released a decision blocking provincial legislation seeking to cut the number of seats on Toronto city council from 47 to 25. The judge ruled the legislation unconstitutional, since it was being passed during an election campaign.
Later that day, Premier Doug Ford announced the government would use Sect. 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – the notwithstanding clause – to override the judge’s decision. In a controversial vote on the bill’s first reading on Sept. 12, one Ford said was a free vote, all of the PC MPPs present in Queen’s Park rose one by one to support the bill, Scott among them.
It is the first time Sect. 33 has ever been invoked by an Ontario government.
“During the [election] campaign, we said we would decrease the size and cost of government,” Scott told the paper. “It’s no secret that Toronto city council has been dysfunctional for a long time.”
The paper pointed out that decreasing the size of Toronto council was never mentioned by anyone during the election campaign, and that most people had likely assumed that provincial candidates were talking about decreasing the scope of provincial government, not municipal ones.
“We did say we’d decrease the cost and size of government,” Scott said.
“We believe the judge’s decision is wrong,” she continued, adding the party has respect for the judiciary, just disagreed with this particular decision.
While the government is also appealing the ruling through the court of appeal – which is the standard process for such a situation – Scott said because municipal elections fall on Oct. 22, using the clause was a matter of timing.
“It’s about the timing, there’s not enough time before the election,” she said. “We don’t have time for an appeal.”
Ford has indicated that he wouldn’t be shy to use the clause again in the future, and Scott was asked if the government would use the clause, which suspends the charter rights of citizens, again.
“The Constitution is clear, it gives us the power to use Sect. 33,” Scott said, but added this was a specific situation, and again mentioned the dysfunction of Toronto city council.
She was asked if the provincial government would go about altering the makeup of other municipal councils, including potentially those in Haliburton County.
“No,” she said, pointing out that the City of Toronto has its own act, and saying there were no plans to carry out a similar procedure elsewhere.
Last week, Toronto’s city clerk said that given the circumstances, it would be “virtually impossible” for the city to hold a fair election.
Scott was asked to respond to that statement.
“There is time, the people campaigning have time,” she said. “Everyone’s going to have a chance to vote.”
Last week, former Ontario premier and PC party stalwart Bill Davis criticized the government’s invoking of Sect. 33, saying it’s a misuse of the clause.
Scott, who once brought Davis to Haliburton Village for a speaking engagement, was asked to respond to his criticisms on the matter.
She responded that former prime minister Jean Chretien, who is also decrying Ford’s use of the clause, was heavily involved with including the notwithstanding clause in the charter. The clause was entrenched in the Constitution following the so-called “Kitchen Accord,” a 1981 meeting between then-justice minister Chretien, former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow and former Ontario attorney general Roy McMurtry.
Scott, who supported MPP Christine Elliott for PC leadership, was asked if there were behind-the-scenes conversations happening within the caucus about reining Ford in.
“We are 100 per cent supportive [of the premier],” she said.
MPPs sat for a midnight session on the bill on Monday, and according to national media, hundreds of spectators and protesters surrounded Queen’s Park, chanting and pounding on the walls of the legislature.
The notwithstanding clause has been used more than 15 times, mostly in Quebec, and mostly over language rights.