Some critics have called it the constitutional “nuclear option.” I call it misguided and wrong.
Premier Ford has invoked Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – or what is better known as the notwithstanding clause – which gives provinces the ability to override parts of the Charter for a period of five years. It is a controversial move that will silence Ontario’s front-line heroes in the lead up to next year’s provincial election.
It is also a form of political strong-arming that is rarely used, and rightly so. In Ontario, it has rarely even raised eyebrows, having never been used in its 39-year history – until now. It is not good for democracy and it is not a good look for Mr. Ford, who is letting his frustration, and fear, get the best of him.
It all started when legislation was introduced to limit spending by groups and organizations on all advertising, including advocacy and public information campaigns, in the 12 months before the election – what was previously, a six-month period. When a judge struck it down as a violation of Ontarians’ Charter rights, Ford decided to fight back; invoking the notwithstanding clause, so he could ignore the court’s ruling and push the Bill through regardless.
Now, less than 12 months from the provincial election, these new election financing rules are already in effect. To satisfy his own self-interest, Premier Ford has started the clock, and then changed the rules of the game after-the-fact.
Except this is not a game for the front-line workers who have been risking their health, and even their lives, on the front lines of the pandemic. Those front-line heroes, including thousands represented by OPSEU/SEFPO, have learned something from their experience this past year, and they have something to say about it publicly.
They deserve to have their voices heard, and they deserve to have their fundamental rights respected in advocating for a better, safer Ontario. Dialogue and dissent are important and enriching parts of our democratic process.
Why then, does the option to block our fundamental rights even exist? It is a good question that goes all the way back to the beginning of the Charter.
Intended to function as a so-called safety valve, the notwithstanding clause was meant to be used on the rarest occasions and only to ensure that judges could not singlehandedly overrule the will of the people. It was meant to give legislators the last word – not to abuse their power or snuff out their critics, like Mr. Ford is clearly trying to do.
So, while our union will continue to do what is best for our members and Ontario, we will never stand by quietly, nor will the front-line workers we proudly represent.
As Ontario rebuilds and recovers from this crisis, now is the time for the Premier to work with all sections of our society, including public sector workers, not silence us by trampling on our right to free speech. Blocking our fundamental rights should not be an option. The public needs to hear what front-line heroes have to say.