Last week’s disgusting storming of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., was appropriately labelled an attack on democracy. Symbols are hugely important in democratic societies, and the images of protesters, incited by President Donald Trump to march on the Capitol, were shocking.
Commentators using the word “insurrection” to describe what they were seeing weren’t being overly dramatic. Democracy was under attack. People got hurt. People died.
Once order was restored, it occurred to me that, a little more than three decades ago, at the seat of government in the province of Ontario, I’d been witness to something that thankfully wasn’t deadly but was plenty concerning at the time.
A huge group of infuriated protesters stormed the Ontario legislature, overran security, smashed through the front doors, and moved en masse to the second floor of Queen’s Park while the House was in session and politicians were in the chamber doing their jobs.
I was a Queen’s Park correspondent at the time, and it sure looked as if the “mob” intended to do bodily harm to someone.
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Here’s the backstory. The events took place in 1988, during David Peterson’s second term as premier of Ontario. Peterson’s first term was only a minority government and the Liberals’ first time in power in 42 years. They governed with the support of the New Democrats, then led by Bob Rae, now United Nations ambassador.
After two years, in 1987, the fresh-faced Liberals were so popular, the premier called an election and won a smashing victory. In fact, in winning 95 out of 130 seats, Peterson captured the biggest majority government in Ontario history. The NDP became the official Opposition but had only 19 seats. The Tories were third and in complete disarray.
However, the Liberals were no longer the plucky underdogs of their first term — and that completely changed the dynamic at Queen’s Park. Peterson’s party was now seen as a juggernaut that the tiny opposition parties and the media felt a greater responsibility to hold to account.
So, when Labour Minister Greg Sorbara tried to bring in some reforms to the workers’-compensation system, an injured-workers’ coalition descended on the legislature’s south lawn to stage a massive protest. NDP MPP Shelley Martel, whose father Eli had held the same Sudbury East seat before her, revved up the crowd with an impassioned speech, imploring it to oppose the government’s proposed changes.
For his part, Sorbara thought he would be obliging the Workers’ Compensation Board by providing better vocational rehabilitation services to injured workers. But, somehow, a rumour went through the crowd of protesters that the minister wanted to reduce their disability pensions. It wasn’t true, but the crowd became increasingly agitated as it listened to speech after speech.
Inside the house, question period was becoming increasingly cantankerous as well. While the minister was chiding the opposition for not having attended a public meeting on the issue the night before, Rae interrupted with, “Yes, and you provided them with complete misinformation.”
Martel also shouted insults back. That got Sorbara’s dander up.
“If she wants to hear the answer to the question,” he said of Martel, “I suggest that she stop screaming for just a couple of seconds.”
Martel fired back: “Well, why don’t you tell the truth for a change? It would be a good idea.”
Amid the foofaraw inside, the demonstrators outside suddenly decided to storm the building. I was in the media gallery covering question period when we all heard this enormous crash, followed by the sound of hundreds of footsteps running our way. As a reporter in his late 20s, I was shocked. This had never happened before. The media gallery immediately emptied as we ran downstairs to see what was transpiring.
You have to remember, Queen’s Park was a very different place back then. The oppressive security of today simply didn’t exist. Today, you can’t get remotely close to the front doors of the legislature without a guard asking you what business you have there. But, back then, Peterson famously promised a government “without walls or barriers,” and he didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk. People could pretty much just walk into the legislature without much fuss. After all, it was the people’s pink palace.
The front doors and security at Queen’s Park didn’t stand a chance. Hundreds of protesters smashed through the doors and made for the second floor, where the MPPs’ entrances to the House were.
Today, Sorbara admits to having been “a little bit panicked,” adding, “I’d been dealing with that angry mob for some time.” In fact, for the previous month, the Ontario Provincial Police had put a full-time officer at his home because of threats he’d been receiving.
After seeing the crowd approach, I can recall thinking, “They are going to burst into the chamber, they are going to grab Sorbara, and they are going to beat the hell out of him. And no one will be able to stop it.”
But someone did.
“God sent Bob Rae out of the chamber, and he calmed them down,” Sorbara now says.
In fact, Rae had worked closely with injured workers since his days at law school, and then again as an MP and MPP. When he heard the commotion, he bolted for the members’ lobby. He may very well have been the only person in that entire building who could have prevented disaster.
He spoke to the workers, many of whom he knew, and whose fears he understood.
“I spoke to them in English and broken Italian,” Rae told me in an email last week. “I said they had made their point but I didn’t want anyone to get hurt or get in any trouble.”
And then something remarkable happened. The crowd listened and filed out peacefully. “Pacificamente, pacificamente,” I remember Rae saying, using the word for “peacefully” in Italian.
And that was that. To the best of my recollection, no one was hurt or even charged.
Sorbara never left the chamber — although, all these years later, part of him wishes he had.
“I regretted I didn’t have enough political clout or savvy to do that,” he now says. “And, frankly, I was a little jealous that Bob could, but also grateful to him because it could have gone very badly.”
Both men watched last week’s debacle in Washington and admitted it had transported them back to that day at Queen’s Park — although with significant differences.
“That was an angry mob whipped up by phony rhetoric with grievances that are ideological and diffuse,” Rae said of the Trump rioters. “The injured workers’… demands were specific. And their pain was a fact based on lived experience.”
Sorbara never quite believed the Ontario protesters hated him as much as they claimed. In fact, he recalls one demonstrator telling him at a protest in his riding in York Region, “Don’t you worry Mr. Sorbara. We’re protesting, but we’re going to vote for you anyway.”
If anything, the incident further cemented Sorbara’s respect for Rae, to the extent that, when Rae switched parties and ran for the federal Liberal leadership, one of his most ardent backers was the former provincial labour minister, whose policies Rae had so opposed on that day.
“Bob did what Bob is so good at doing,” Sorbara says.
And everyone went home alive and well.