TORONTO — Protesters heckled Ontario Premier Doug Ford in the legislature Wednesday as he defended his decision to push through a bill slashing Toronto city council nearly in half just days after a judge found the legislation unconstitutional.
Shouts erupted from the public gallery as Ford argued he was protecting democracy by invoking a constitutional provision to override the court decision, which found his plan to cut the size of the city’s council in the middle of an election violated candidates’ and voters’ freedom of expression rights.
“This is about preserving the will of the people, this is about preserving democracy,” Ford said during question period, citing his Progressive Conservatives’ victory in the spring election.
Asked whether he believed in the Charter of Rights, the premier said a democratically elected government should not be derailed by a “politically appointed” judge.
The premier maintains cutting Toronto city council to 25 seats from 47 is necessary to streamline decision-making and save taxpayer money.
The commotion from protesters opposed to Ford’s plan drew repeated reprimands from the Speaker, who eventually recessed the legislature and cleared the public gallery. At least two of the protesters were handcuffed by security officers.
Laura Barrett, a Toronto supply teacher, lined up to watch the debate Wednesday morning but couldn’t make it inside before the gallery was shut down.
Barrett said she felt it was important to show her disapproval at what she called a “constitutional tragedy,” adding the premier’s decision to move forward with the council cut appeared “petty and vindictive.”
“It’s totally antithetical to the idea of democracy and it’s a real mess,” she said, calling it absurd to reduce democracy to voting every four years.
“That’s the whole point of the charter, it outlives and outlasts any one political movement or party…it goes to our fundamental rights as people. So don’t trample on those, but especially not for this, this is the pettiest thing.”
The constitutional provision Ford plans to invoke, known as the notwithstanding clause, has never been used in the province before and critics have condemned the move, saying the clause was not designed to deal with this kind of issue.
Toronto Mayor John Tory has said invoking the clause is a “gross overreach” of the province’s powers, adding city staff will advise councillors at a special meeting on Thursday how the municipality can proceed with the upcoming Oct. 22 election.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath accused the premier of trampling people’s rights to pursue a personal vendetta against Toronto, where served one term as a city councillor and unsuccessfully ran for mayor.
“The premier rammed through undemocratic changes to Toronto’s elections — changes that he didn’t have the guts to mention at all during the election campaign — (and) a judge ruled that that wasn’t just reckless and irresponsible, but a violation of people’s basic rights,” she said in the legislature.
“Now the premier’s going to override the charter of rights for the first time in Ontario’s history just to get his way.”
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the premier appears to believe that winning a majority means he is above the law.
“It is wrong for the premier to attack our fundamental charter rights for political gain,” he said in a statement. “He is bringing a dangerous view of democracy to Queen’s Park, predicated on his belief that he can rule by decree.”
Ford has said Tory legislators will be free to vote as they wish on the bill and a major public service union urged them to break from party lines and oppose it.
“The notwithstanding clause isn’t something you toss around lightly,” Smokey Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said in a statement. “If Conservative MPPs respect democracy and the judicial system, now’s their chance to take back their party.”
The government is also seeking a stay of the court’s ruling as it appeals the judge’s decision.