The worst thing I’ve ever heard an Ontario premier say

Doug Ford accused NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa of vaccine queue-jumping. That was appalling for so many reasons
By Steve Paikin - Published on Mar 15, 2021
At Queen’s Park last week, Premier Doug Ford (left) accused NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa of vaccine queue-jumping. (YouTube)

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Seriously, though, what in heaven’s name was Premier Doug Ford thinking?

Ever since Ford got to his feet in question period last week to accuse NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa of jumping the queue to get his vaccine shot, I’ve been racking my brains to try to recall a more ill-advised thing said by a previous provincial first minister.

I truly can’t think of anything. And my time watching Queen’s Park question periods goes back to 1982.

There’s an old joke in politics: Where’s the most dangerous place in the world to be? Answer: Between [fill in the name of any air-hog politician] and a camera. Yes, there are some politicians who would run over their grandmothers to get in front of the bright lights to get their 30 seconds on the evening news.

Whoever those politicians are, Mamakwa is the exact opposite. I have never heard him raise his voice in anger at the legislature. When he rises to ask a question, the whole house goes silent for a couple of darned good reasons.

First, you know he’s going to ask something thoughtful and relevant, in soft hushed tones, and there will be no peacocking for the cameras. Mamakwa represents Kiiwetinoong, the northernmost riding out of Ontario’s 124. You don’t need to know anything about life in this province to know that some of his constituents lead incredibly hard lives. And he brings their voices and experiences to Queen’s Park whenever he opens his mouth.

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But the house also goes silent when Mamakwa talks, because he’s Indigenous. He never gets heckled or disrespected: intelligent politicians understand that to treat an Indigenous MPP that way would be doubly, no, triply offensive, given the massive hardships Indigenous people have experienced over the centuries.

So ever since he first got elected in June 2018, Mamakwa has enjoyed a rare, universal respect in the legislature.

At least, until last Thursday.

That’s when, for some inexplicable reason, Ford decided to show up Mamakwa during question period.

“The member flew in [to] get his vaccine, so thank you for doing that and kind of jumping the line,” Ford began. “I talked to a few chiefs that were pretty upset about that for flying into the community that he doesn't belong to, but that's here nor there.”

There were so many things wrong with this statement that I hardly know where to begin.

First and foremost, Mamakwa wasn’t queue-jumping when he got his vaccine at a reserve different from the one where he lives. In fact, he’d been invited by the local chief to do that, with cameras in tow to record the moment, because apparently some Indigenous people are hesitant to receive medical treatment from non-Indigenous people. If you know even a tiny bit of history, you’ll know Indigenous people have good reason to be suspicious under those circumstances.  

Mamakwa was trying to set an example to other Indigenous people that the vaccine is safe and worth taking. That’s a message of particular importance on reserves, where, because of a lack of services, the eruption of the coronavirus can be especially problematic.

Some reporters have been trying to find out who the “few chiefs” were that Ford supposedly talked to. So far, they’ve had no success. The premier’s office isn’t offering names. No chiefs have come forward to publicly complain. Did the premier simply make that up? Sure seems possible.

But the worst aspect of this scandal is the spectre of the province’s most powerful politician smearing one of the legislature’s most modest and dignified representatives. It’s an unwritten rule in politics that punches thrown can succeed when you “punch up.” This was the most egregious example of the opposite.

Mamakwa, in his typically classy way, said Friday that he appreciated that Ford called that day to offer an apology. But he also allowed that the incident had made him feel colonialized and humiliated all over again, and you know that because those words were coming from Mamakwa, it wasn’t hyperbole. In the 33 months that Mamakwa has been an MPP, I simply have never seen him showboat or grandstand in any speech. His comments last Friday were consistent with his sincere style of communicating.

Those who’ve watched the premier transform himself from the belligerent pre-pandemic bully to the empathetic, more popular version of himself over the past year have got to be wondering what just happened. A full year of folksy news conferences, impressive photo ops unloading shipments of protective equipment out of pickup trucks, and heartfelt shout-outs to front-line heroes may have all just been torpedoed because the premier couldn’t resist taking a thoughtless, heartless, ill-advised shot at the one MPP who deserved it the least. Let’s acknowledge, there are some particularly rough-and-tumble opposition politicians who overindulge in insults and might have earned a verbal smack from a government representative from time to time. But Mamakwa sure isn’t one of them.

Yes, Ford apologized on Friday. But he did it privately, over the phone, in what Mamakwa said was a 90-second call. As apologies in politics go, that barely passes muster. Something in public, showing genuine contrition and an understanding of why his words had been so egregiously bad would have been the way to go. Ford has demonstrated his ability to do that in the past, but for whatever reason, he hasn’t done it this time — at least, not yet. If Ford thinks his tepid, private apology means he won’t be answering questions about this at his next news conference, I suspect he’s got another thing coming.

In fact, the issue was raised Sunday morning during a post-announcement Q&A. Ford explained the incident away thus: “Let’s not forget we’re two separate parties, and there’s a lot of politics that get played, day in and day out,” the premier said, adding he thought he had a great relationship with Ontario’s Indigenous communities and their leaders. He added, “I can’t think of any other government that’s done more for the Indigenous community [than ours has].”

When Mamakwa heard about the premier’s Sunday-morning comments, he suggested that Ford’s words would do more harm than good for the cause of having more Indigenous people vaccinated.

“The premier’s excuse for lying about Indigenous people not qualifying for the vaccine is that it’s just politics,” he began. “In my experience, people only apologize for racist behaviour when they get called out on it. Premier Ford is actually expressing old colonial attitudes about Indigenous peoples. These are the racist attitudes this country was built on.”

Politically, maybe Ford will get away with this. Or just maybe, all those citizens who’ve wanted to believe that he was a new and improved premier will conclude that the leopard could keep it together for only so long — that, at the end of the day, he actually can’t change his spots.

I’m still racking my brain for the worst thing said by any of the nine premiers I’ve known over the past nearly four decades.

I think I just heard it. In fact, I know I did.

For more on this topic, read John Michael McGrath's story "Doug Ford owes Sol Mamakwa an apology."

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