NIAGARA FALLS, ONT.—Ontario is careening toward a general strike unless Premier Doug Ford changes his ways, a key labour leader warned outside a convention hall where the Progressive Conservatives debated their next steps in running the province.
Carrying protest signs and waving union flags, about 1,000 people gathered in biting cold winds Saturday as Ford and an equal number of cabinet ministers, MPPs and party activists started developing the PC platform for the June 2022 election.
“If the Conservatives don’t listen to us … we will shut this province down,” declared Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, which organized the event to fight what she called Ford’s “regressive agenda.”
Inside the convention later in the day, Ford said the government is sticking to its “pro-business, pro-jobs, pro-people government” and repeated a promise he has not yet been able to keep – putting beer and wine in corner stores.
“My friends, the 2022 campaign starts today, starts now,” he told delegates during an 18-minute dinner speech in which he boasted of cancelling unnecessary green energy projects, planning new subway lines in Toronto and pledging “we’re here for the little guy.”
“Absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, is going to stop us,” Ford vowed. “Our economy is firing on all cylinders.”
He took aim at the Liberals who will elect a new leader in two weeks after a campaign that has seen former cabinet minister Steven Del Duca take a commanding lead.
“The people we’re up against are the same ones who ran this province into the ground.”
Ford did not take questions, but Government House Leader Paul Calandra brushed aside the prospect of a broad labour disruption.
“We’re always willing to listen to anybody who wants to bring their opinions forward,” he told reporters amid unusually tight security and restrictions for a political convention by any party.
Journalists’ identities were checked and bags searched before they were escorted to a news conference with Calandra and Ford’s speech under instructions not to roam the convention hall where delegates were emerging from policy discussions.
“There is hot debate,” Calandara added. “Grassroots members would like to have that opportunity to have those discussions in private.”
Behind closed doors, former Ford campaign head Kory Teneycke advised delegates to hold steady in the face of opposition, particularly “those who have gotten fat from the largesse of past regimes” as the government works to balance the budget in 2023.
“Being a party of responsible choices is not just thankless, it’s often met with protests, anger and vitriol,” he says in a video obtained by the Star.
Other sources inside the convention told the Star party members were voting, among other items, on resolutions from social conservatives, including one from former PC leadership candidate Tanya Granic Allen to axe the old Liberal sex education curriculum which Ford initially opposed and later relented after a consultation with parents.
In education sessions, there were concerns raised that the government is not getting its message out on countering the rotating teacher strikes and there was talk of more “choice” in education, particularly for faith-based schools – a promise that former PC leader John Tory made in the 2007 election campaign only to be soundly defeated by then-premier Dalton McGuinty.
Calandra apologized “unreservedly” to CBC reporter Mike Crawley who was repeatedly interrupted by a guard from Viking Security Corp. while doing a live report on the sidewalk outside the convention centre on Friday night.
“It wasn’t something that the PC party had asked to be done,” Calandra maintained.
But a co-owner of Viking challenged Calandra’s response.
“It was laid out ahead of time and in that moment,” Tammy Rolland said in a telephone interview with the Star, referring to an advance briefing with party officials and orders given on the scene. “He told me he was told to do it,” she added, referring to the guard.
At the rally outside Saturday, leaders of several unions, from teachers to health care and grocery store workers, hopped on the back of a flatbed truck to take the government to task for its 1 per cent public sector wage cap, plan for larger class sizes, more online learning, changes to autism funding that have left parents scrambling, and stalling the rise to a $15 minimum wage.
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“Let this government know that we will hold them accountable … for what they’re doing to working families,” Coates added.
“They need to change course.”
The crowd arrived on buses from as far away as Windsor and Ottawa, with two protesters bearing elaborate effigies of Ford and many sporting buttons saying “I am the people,” a twist on the premier’s victorious 2018 campaign slogan and theme song “for the people.”
The event followed Friday’s much larger encirclement of Queen’s Park by thousands of teachers from four unions whose one-day strike shut down every school in the province.
“This isn’t just about education,” Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, said during 90 minutes of speeches.
“Next comes health care. Next comes all our public services — unless we push back.”
Sarah Labelle of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents tens of thousands of civil servants, echoed the OFL’s threat of widespread labour unrest.
“If it takes a general strike down the road we’re not scared.”
New Democrat MPP Wayne Gates, who represents Niagara Falls in the legislature, said the government has proven itself incapable of managing the province with a number of high-profile policy reversals after measures have backfired.
“They can’t even make licence plates,” he added in a mocking tone, referring to a problem that dogged Ford’s administration all week.
New double-blue plates which went into distribution Feb. 1 are hard to read in the dark because they give off a glare under some lighting conditions.
After initially denying the problem first raised by a Kingston police officer in a tweet that went viral, Government and Consumer Services said Thursday a fix is the works and plates already issued will be replaced.
The plates have been dubbed “propaganda plates” because they are in Conservative blue colours.