Healthy Democracy

Bill 195-Doug Ford's Power Grab

Unhealthy for Democracy

A few weeks ago in front of Kingston General Hospital health care workers were picketing, carrying signs that read “Restore Our Rights”.  You might have wondered what it was all about?

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Ontario the provincial government declared a state of emergency under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act (the Emergency Act). The Emergency Act let the government close businesses, offices, schools, etc. – the shutdown. And it put extraordinary rules and practices in place for the management of  workplaces which curtailed workers’ rights. At the time these measure were necessary to ensure our safety and well-being. After all it was an ‘Emergency’.

On July 24th, as the pandemic showed signs of being waning, the government declared the state of emergency was over. At the same time they passed Bill 195 the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act (the Reopening Act). It should have been called Keeping Ontario Under My Thumb (A Convenient Response to COVID-19) Act, because it allowed the government to continue to emergency powers without having to justify them.

The province said the emergency was over, but in the Reopening Act they extended many of the government’s emergency powers, while removing critical oversight by the legislature.

While we were under the Emergency Act our elected representatives (The Legislature) had to approve extensions of the state of emergency every 28 days. This is a critical check on the enormous power given to the Premier and Cabinet Ministers during an emergency. Every 28 days the people representing us could ask questions, debate the necessity of emergency measures, discuss what was best for their communities, and dissent if needed. They had the power to vote to continue or to terminate the emergency powers on our behalf. But not anymore!

Bill 195 gave that power to the Premier and Cabinet. So they can extend emergency orders behind closed doors, without a discussion or a vote from the Legislature. The Cabinet only has to come back to the Legislature once a year, and the powers can continue to be extended every year until the next election. Ford is clearly trying to ‘Have His Cake and Eat It Too’. All the power and none of the inconvenience of having to justify, to you and me, why he should continue to have all that power. Doesn’t that sound like a dictatorship to you?

The Conservative government is trying to convince us that the Reopening Act gives the Cabinet reduced powers because they can only amend and extend certain orders, not create new ones. The problem is that the orders they can amend impinge upon the democratic rights and daily lives of every Ontarian. Briefly, the Cabinet can:

  • vote to close or regulate any place, business, school, office, hospital or other institution or establishment;
  • provide rules or practices that affect almost all aspects of workplaces and the management of workplaces;
  • prohibit or regulate public events and gatherings.

So the picketing health care workers outside Kingston General Hospital and at 20 other sites across the Province were protesting that the Reopening Act gives their employers unprecedented powers to:

  • cancel or deny leaves and vacations even if they need a break for their own health
  • redeploy and reassign staff without consultation
  • change hours of work whenever they like
  • suspend scheduling provisions even if a worker has family to consider
  • eliminate lay-off and reassignment rights so their jobs aren’t protected
  • hire temporary, part-time or outside contractors who may not be as well qualified
  • restrict employees from working for more than one employer even if it means that can’t make enough income to pay their bills

In short, the Reopening Act is a violation of collective agreement rights, a violation of workers’ rights and an intolerable assault on our democracy. During the pandemic Ford liked to refer to our health care workers as heroes and heroines, is this any way to repay them for their unflinching service during the COVID-19 pandemic? I doubt they see it that way.

It looks like COVID-19 may be with us for a long time and we will need to learn to live with it, but we must do this in a just and democratic society, where human rights and civil liberties are embedded and respected. Health care workers took care of our health, now they are fighting for our democracy. It’s our turn to take care of them – Restore Their Rights, Preserve Our Democracy.