TORONTO — Protesters lingered overnight outside the Ontario legislature after they were barred from observing a rare midnight sitting meant to speed up the passage of a controversial bill to cut Toronto’s city council nearly in half.
Some voiced their opposition to the bill inside Queen’s Park as the proceedings got underway, heckling Progressive Conservative legislators with cries of “shame, shame” until the Speaker cleared the public galleries.
People who had lined up to observe the overnight debate expressed their outrage at being shut out of the process, chanting “Let us in!” as police officers stood in front of the doors.
As dawn broke and the meeting wound down, Premier Doug Ford said his government had sent a strong message to Ontarians by working overnight to fast-track the bill, which would reduce council to 25 seats from 47.
“We are the only ones listening to the people — not the disruptors, not the professional activists that we’ve seen over the last few days. And when you stand up for the people, the people will stand with you,” he told the legislature.
“The people are behind us, and I can tell you my friends, we will never, ever back down.”
New Democrats, meanwhile, said the tumult outside the legislature shows that many oppose the government’s decision.
“How can you be here for the people when the people outside are banging to get into this building and not able to get into the building as a result of your actions?” NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath briefly left the debate to address the crowd, telling them she was proud to see so many people rally to defend charter rights at such an unusual time.
“Interfering in ongoing elections has…a chilling effect on our democracy,” she said later inside the house.
“The reality is this government behaved inappropriately, rammed this change forward without any kind of consultation while the elections were already underway.”
The Ontario government cited the need for urgent action in justifying the late-night sitting, saying passing the bill would eliminate any uncertainty surrounding the upcoming municipal vote, set for Oct. 22.
“With the date of the municipal election rapidly approaching, we need to take action,” Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said. “Oct. 22 is just a few weeks away. Action to provide greater certainty for everyone and action to ensure that the election proceeds.”
Ford said the Opposition was to blame for leaving the election in limbo. “The same ones who say that we need to provide Toronto with certainty are the same ones who are trying to hold up this bill,” he said.
An earlier version of the bill was struck down as unconstitutional by an Ontario Superior Court judge last Monday, prompting Ford to invoke a rare provision known as the notwithstanding clause to override the ruling and reintroduce the legislation.
Ford’s use of the provision has been denounced by the opposition parties, prominent Canadian politicians and hundreds of legal professionals.
“The premier’s use of the notwithstanding clause for the first time has created unprecedented chaos in our city, in our province and beyond,” Liberal legislator Mitzie Hunter said during the debate.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the premier’s actions have put the municipal election in jeopardy.
“This premier has manufactured a crisis by meddling with elections and trampling on local democracy,” he said in a statement. “The Conservatives are acting with impunity, trying to suspend people’s Charter rights under the cover of darkness while Ontarians are asleep. ”
The Tory government maintains the move is necessary and within its rights, and claims the judge made an error in his ruling.
Evangeline Cowie and Ana Buzdugan, two Grade 12 students from Toronto, watched the debate for a short time before the public galleries were cleared. The pair said they felt it was important to show their opposition to the bill — even on a school night.
“It’s going to send a message that everyone is ready, is prepared to do whatever it takes to go against that decision,” said Cowie, who attended with her parents.
“History is kind of going to be made today so I feel like it’s important to be here, especially for something that concerns Toronto and its citizens so much,” Buzdugan added.
Frank Griggs, who lined up to observe the proceedings, expressed similar motivations.
“I hope this sends a message to some of the Conservative MPPs that might at least consider voting against this bill based on the feelings of their own constituents and also just their own sense of decency and their own idea of what democracy should be,” Griggs said.
The bill was debated at an uncommon weekend sitting at Queen’s Park on Saturday, and the lieutenant-governor granted the government’s request to reconvene the house at 12:01 a.m. Monday to continue the debate.
Ford wouldn’t say how much it cost to bring back staff on the weekend.
New Democrats had argued the bill should be thrown out, citing rules that preclude the house from debating substantially identical legislation in the same session and from debating a matter that is before the courts.
However, Speaker Ted Arnott ruled in the government’s favour early Monday morning, saying the newly introduced bill is different from its previous incarnation.
The NDP also moved to adjourn the overnight debate but lost 67-24.
The government finds itself crunched for time at the legislature with the International Plowing Match in Chatham-Kent set for Tuesday. Each year Queen’s Park closes for a day so all politicians can attend.
Earlier this week, City of Toronto clerk Ulli Watkiss said that with each passing day it becomes “virtually impossible” to ensure the city provides its residents and candidates with a fair election.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press