If I am not mistaken, somewhere in the time frame of grades 5-7, school students in Ontario begin to learn about the systems of government we use in this country. Students learn about the different levels of government – federal, provincial, and municipal – and what their roles are and some basics of how they operate. I would wager that students this young, when asked what the role of an MP or an MPP is, would state that these individuals are there to serve and represent us. In other words, a person does not have to be old and wise to know that the very foundation of the democracy in which we live is having representatives to share our wants, needs, and concerns with the leaders who make the decisions.
A democratic system is ideal in concept, but recent events have shown that sometimes, party politics can turn our beloved political system into what feels like a party we were not invited to. We (generally) elect candidates from certain parties as a show of support for particular values and ways of thinking. This is an efficient system, but is prone to error when it comes to the critical end goal of having a country that is governed by the people.
The recent situation with the CUPE education workers’ labour dispute and Bill 28 (yes, I am bringing this up again!) is the specific example to which I will refer. At the risk of letting my personal feelings be known – though my opinion should come as no surprise since I am a CUPE member – Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce made an unacceptable and dare-I-say, tyrannical blunder. When faced with the prospect of not getting their way in labour negotiations with CUPE, Premier Ford and Education Minister Lecce pushed Bill 28 to make strike action by CUPE illegal, and imposed a contract without fair bargaining. These actions were openly unconstitutional, but Ford and Lecce didn’t care. They even proudly shared their intention to use the Notwithstanding Clause of the Constitution to quash any legal challenge to their Bill. Their actions are reminiscent of a stressed parent who creates a strict rule and enforces it with quips of “because I said so!” Should Premiers and Ministers really act in such a crass and undemocratic way? Sorry Ford and Lecce, but stress comes with the job, and the only thing you proved was that you can’t handle it.
Bill 28 was, of course, repealed in its entirety by the very government who passed it, just four days after it came into effect. Why? Oh my, where to begin! I’ll begin with the humorous fact that CUPE members ignored Bill 28 entirely and walked off the job anyway, which had to embarrass Ford and Lecce! Approximately 3 million union members were set to hold a press conference on the same day that Bill 28 was quashed. Was there going to be a general strike called? It certainly was not out of the question. The Notwithstanding Clause exists for emergencies, not to help lazy government officials get out of doing their jobs. Ford and Lecce using it to quash fundamental labour rights did not sit well with any union, because what the government imposes on one union could be imposed on all. Even putting the law and union business aside, support for CUPE members from the public has been astounding. Not everyone agrees with education worker strikes and I respect that, but an independent poll conducted earlier this month showed that over 70% of people blame the government and not the union for what happened, and approximately the same number felt the use of the Notwithstanding Clause was wrong. Remember that this is not about greed. As of the time of writing, frontline school support staff make less than what many factory general labourers make. Let me clarify why this is important – such factory jobs that offer more hours and better pay are becoming very high in demand, and school support staff are leaving their positions for better pay in a difficult economy! The pay for support staff positions has not kept up with inflation in the slightest, and in the current economy, there are simply too many higher paying options out there. Schools can no longer hire and retain the support staff they need at wage levels that made sense 10 years ago.
So how does representation fit into this? Simply put, we weren’t represented the way we should have been by our newly elected MPP, Nolan Quinn. Quinn is a Progressive Conservative, belonging to the same party as Ford and Lecce which holds a majority in the Ontario legislature. Being new to his role, he is not likely to oppose his leader any time soon. A local resident emailed me last week to tell me that after emailing Quinn hoping he would do something about Bill 28, she found out he was one of the ones that voted to pass it. Of course he was – that is how party politics works. Few MPPs or MPs are willing to oppose their own party, for all the usual reasons. Such opposition burns bridges for things such as Minister appointments and other distinguishing career highlights. The problem is that when 70% of Ontarians disagree with a Bill, voting for it because Ford and Lecce said so is not representation at all. We need representatives who have the backbone to say “no” when proposed legislation simply does not make sense, especially when almost three quarters of constituents are asserting as much. A party system makes sense to organize values so that every decision does not have to be informed by a referendum, but listening to one’s constituents over one’s party should not be taboo. We expect Ford to run a provincial government, not a chapter of the Freemasons.
I have to wonder how Quinn explained to his wife, who is a teacher, that he would be voting to impose illegal and shameful legislation on her CUPE colleagues. Teachers have shown overwhelming support of the CUPE job action. Quinn was even the butt of many online jokes last week, as he appeared to be “missing in action” and was neglecting to answer constituents’ calls and emails. Not the kind of representation we should expect. Welcome to the party! Oh wait, we weren’t invited.