Ontarians have learned that democratic participation matters

This past weekend proved you still need the consent of the governed in Canada’s biggest province
By Steve Paikin - Published on Apr 19, 2021
The Tories reversed course on playground closures this weekend. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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Has there ever before been a weekend the likes of which we’ve just experienced in the province of Ontario? If there has been, I can’t remember it. 

On Friday, Premier Doug Ford emerged from a marathon cabinet meeting to announce a series of measures designed to prevent COVID-19 from spreading more than it already has, which is a lot. Remember last summer when we had 200 positive tests a day (or fewer)? Now we’ve gone several days in a row with the positive case count north of 4,000. It’s shocking how virulent this third wave has been.  

But remarkably, Ford’s announcement seemed only to infuriate all sides of the COVID-19 debate. Those seeking progress on the public-health side of things were incredulous that Ford was going to continue to allow big-box stores to remain open — along with densely populated big businesses, which have proved to be great places for the virus to run rampant. 

On the other hand, those concerned with civil rights were equally gobsmacked that Ford seemed to be granting unprecedented powers to local police services to arbitrarily stop citizens, even if they were simply out for a walk, and demand that they produce identification and justify why they weren’t at home. Former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant, now heading the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, referred to Ford’s news conference as a “Black Friday” for civil rights. Social media picked up the chant, and, before you knew it, Black Friday had become a thing. 

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And then there might be a third group of ... well, let’s just call them common-sense citizens who aren’t particularly ideological but who didn’t understand why playing tennis outdoors in the park should be forbidden, when we’ve been told that outdoors is the place to be to avoid being infected. 

You can appreciate that the government has been trying to find the sweet spot that would get just enough buy-in from all three groups to enable it to continue to govern with authority. 

But the instantaneous chorus of criticism after Ford’s Friday affair was noteworthy, inasmuch as everyone seemed to think it had missed the mark. 

We even had the extraordinary spectacle of police services announcing that, even if the province was giving them additional powers to do street checks on people, they wouldn’t do them. At first, it was just a trickle of police departments putting that on the record. Within 24 hours, the list had grown exponentially. The province may have wanted to empower the cops to levy $750 tickets to citizens who were away from home, but dozens of police chiefs clearly wanted no part of it — and, remarkably enough, actually said so. 

Clearly, the province found itself in an untenable position. Before the proverbial ink was even dry on the new orders, Ford realized he had a mutiny on his hands and began backpedalling. The premier’s office started issuing “clarifications” in hopes of getting more supporters on board. 

While some observers will use the events of the last 72 hours to pile on the Ford government, I’d prefer to point out what a wonderful exercise in democracy we’ve witnessed. The government has learned that it can issue policy directives only if it nurtures and keeps the consent of the governed. Constitutionally and legally, Ford may have the power in a majority parliament to do essentially anything he wants. But, actually, as we’ve discovered, he can’t. 

And the public has learned that participation in democracy matters! If enough people make a big enough stink and marshall good arguments to their cause, they can win — particularly if the government of the day is in the second half of its mandate. There’s only so much ticking off of the electorate any government is prepared to do when the re-election clock is ticking. 

Canadians have demonstrated a considerable amount of patience with their politicians over the past year. Many seem to understand that none of the current crop won election on a platform having anything to do with the coronavirus. That may go a long way to explaining why governments in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador have all been re-elected, despite their records on fighting COVID-19. And the federal Liberals are poised to do likewise, should an election take place later this year. 

But that sympathy for those in power should never be confused with governments having carte blanche to do things that simply can’t be justified in a parliamentary democracy. 

And isn’t that a wonderful thing. 

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