Sometimes I envy those people who think in black or white because I often think in grey and at times that becomes complicated. It means that I don’t always agree with people or politicians (I guess they are people too) whom I would otherwise support. I also believe it is important to speak up when that occurs.
I do not believe in blind loyalty. I actually think that can lead to poor governance, the acceptance of “alternate facts,” corruption, and at its height, anarchy. I believe real loyalty is speaking truth to power, even when it is uncomfortable.
And so, the kerfuffle this past week over the Ford Government’s enactment of the notwithstanding clause, intended to keep children in school, has raised a number of issues in my mind.
In a nutshell, I think enacting the notwithstanding clause by the Ford government is a serious mistake. I agree that a top priority of the Ontario Government should be to keep children in school. I think CUPE has overplayed its hand in making demands the government cannot possibly meet. I believe the Prime Minister of Canada is endangering the unity of this country through his hypocrisy in dumping all over Ontario’s use of the notwithstanding clause but barely lifting an eyebrow at Quebec’s use of it on numerous occasions.
So, let’s look at these issues one at a time.
In my view, enacting the notwithstanding clause in Ontario to prevent a strike of education workers was a poor strategy for the Ford government. It is using the nuclear option when there are other alternatives available. It also opens the door to a constitutional battle.
I have spent enough time in the back rooms of political theatre to believe that in this instance there were more downsides than advantages to the government moving ahead with this particular initiative. For one thing, they guaranteed the anger of unions whose support they had gained during the last election. They were picking fights that could only lead to division and confrontation. Any win for the government would be at the cost of this disruption and the victory itself would be a narrow one with bitterness and discord remaining. And of course, using the notwithstanding clause, for an issue it was not intended for, opens up a whole other can of worms.
It would have been better, in my view, for the government to use other tools at its disposal if and when it believed it had run out of options for a negotiated settlement. It could have ordered compulsory arbitration. It could have considered defining people who work in the education field as essential workers, preventing them from striking but providing them with tools to negotiate fair wages.
Invoking the notwithstanding clause was overkill, inviting charges of trampling on people’s rights and, as things stand at the moment, not even keeping kids in school which was its intended purpose.
I do believe, however, that this is not a time to take children once again out of the classroom. It is not fair to them. It is not fair to parents, and it is also not fair to teachers who have a job to do in a limited period of time.
I have heard the argument that it is hypocritical of Ford to have closed schools during the pandemic but gone to the mat to keep them open now. I disagree. The COVID pandemic was at its height, basically a plague, where tens of thousands of people died, and others got very sick. Extraordinary steps were needed to keep people as safe as possible and closing classrooms was one of them. What we are facing now is essentially a labour dispute and there is a palpable difference.
This is not the time for a strike of education workers. Children’s lives have been disrupted enough during the past two years. They need to be in the classroom now. The Ford government is right about that. I simply believe there are better ways of going about it than invoking the notwithstanding clause.
As for CUPE, given the reality of the world we are presently living in, their demands, in my view, are not achievable and have made it impossible for the Ontario government to agree to a fair settlement. It guaranteed a stand-off, and one has to wonder if that was the intent from the get-go.
According to Statistics Canada, the average union contract increase in most sectors in the last year was 1.8 per cent per year. The education workers represented by CUPE, custodians, administration staff, cafeteria workers, and in some cases teacher assistants, and so on, generally receive a wage of $24.50 an hour. CUPE has been demanding an 11.7 per cent increase in this wage category every year for the next four years. That would be close to a 50 per cent increase over four years for about 55,000 workers, totalling about $1.2 billion in taxpayer dollars.
Were the Ontario government, or any other government, to agree to anything close to this, can you imagine the lineup of other bargaining units demanding similar parameters?
I believe strongly that everyone who works deserves a fair wage for the work that they perform. When it comes to education, I do not believe students should be held hostage to that process. Nor do I believe that the public purse is bottomless. And so, I support back-to-work legislation where necessary, with safeguards for reasonable compensation. But I do not support using the notwithstanding clause to achieve that.
Finally, a word to Prime Minister Trudeau. When it comes to the notwithstanding clause, please apply the same standards to Quebec that you do to Ontario. This issue is too important to talk from both sides of your mouth. You have described the Ford Government’s use of this clause as “an attack on fundamental rights.” You have said that your government is looking at “all options” to address this.
You are aware Sir, that the notwithstanding clause was a controversial lynchpin in the 1981 constitutional negotiations required to get a deal with the required number of provinces. You know it was intended for extraordinary circumstances and not for normal operational issues at the provincial level.
The federal government has the constitutional power to override or “disallow” the use of the notwithstanding clause when it is deemed unacceptable. You did not use that power when Quebec used this clause to strip away English-speaking language rights or the right of government workers to meet requirements of religious clothing and symbols, or the move by that province to declare itself a “nation.” But you are considering “all options” for Ontario. How hypocritical. How potentially dangerous and how wrong.
And so, the use of the notwithstanding clause in Ontario this past week has raised a number of important issues. Some of them I can agree with.
But not all.
Hugh Mackenzie has held elected office as a trustee on the Muskoka Board of Education, a Huntsville councillor, a District councillor, and mayor of Huntsville. He has also served as chairman of the District of Muskoka and as chief of staff to former premier of Ontario, Frank Miller.
Hugh has also served on a number of provincial, federal and local boards, including chair of the Ontario Health Disciplines Board, vice-chair of the Ontario Family Health Network, vice-chair of the Ontario Election Finance Commission, and board member of Roy Thomson Hall, the National Theatre School of Canada, and the Anglican Church of Canada. Locally, he has served as president of the Huntsville Rotary Club, chair of Huntsville District Memorial Hospital, chair of the Huntsville Hospital Foundation, president of Huntsville Festival of the Arts, and board member of Community Living Huntsville.
In business, Hugh Mackenzie has a background in radio and newspaper publishing. He was also a founding partner and CEO of Enterprise Canada, a national public affairs and strategic communications firm established in 1986.
Currently, Hugh is president of C3 Digital Media Inc., the parent company of Doppler Online, and he enjoys writing commentary for Huntsville Doppler.
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