MPP Chris Glover –
As bulldozers begin felling trees to make way for Doug Ford’s private mega-spa at Ontario Place, the fight to stop this disastrous project continues at Queen’s Park.
But this fight is about more than the destruction of wildlife habitat, the secret 95-year lease of public parkland to a private corporation, or even the estimated $650 million in taxpayer subsidies. It’s about protecting our democratic rights.
To fast-track their luxury spa, the Conservatives rewrote Ontario’s laws. The Rebuilding Ontario Place Act exempts the project from the Environmental Protection Act, the Environmental Bill of Rights and the Ontario Heritage Act, and overrides Toronto’s planning and noise bylaws. It also exempts government ministers and officials from being taken to court for any action that constitutes breach of contract or acts of misfeasance; the “misuse of lawful authority.”
Why do Ford’s Conservatives feel the need to rewrite so many laws in order to complete their mega-spa deal with Therme? And what acts of misfeasance have they committed or are planning to commit for which they need legal exemption?
The community group Ontario Place for All is seeking a court injunction to stop the project, arguing that the government is violating both environmental and heritage laws. Ford’s new legislation seems designed to strip Ontarians, including and especially Ontario Place for All, of the right to take the government to court regarding this project. The timing of the bill’s introduction was suspiciously close to the news of the potential injunction.
Another group, Ontario Place Protectors, is now challenging the constitutionality of the new Ontario Place bill in court. It argues that the government’s seizure of powers is “a complete negation of the laws meant to protect every Ontario resident and their most basic democratic rights.”
As the Auditor General is investigating the Therme deal, the legislation may be designed to insulate the government from revelations that will come out in her report. Last summer, revelations in the Auditor General’s Greenbelt report triggered the ongoing RCMP criminal investigation into actions of the Ford Conservatives.
This Ontario Place bill is not the first, or even the worst of Ford’s attacks on our democratic rights. In the middle of the 2018 municipal election campaign, he cancelled four regional chair elections and cut the number of seats in Toronto’s election from 47 to 25. This action was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, which in a 5-4 ruling ruled that because the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to only federal and provincial democratic elections, Canadians do not have a right to democratic municipal elections.
The ruling gave Ford an opportunity to seize more power over municipal governments. His “strong mayor” legislation has allowed most Ontario mayors to govern with only a third of council votes on certain issues—stripping Ontarians of their right to majority-vote municipal democracy.
Ford’s other attacks include three separate Conservative bills that have used the Constitution’s notwithstanding” clause to strip Ontarians of fundamental freedoms and legal rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 2022, he used it with Bill 24; an attempt to strip education workers of their union rights. He repealed the legislation only when Ontario unions threatened a general strike.
Ford’s actions over the last five years show just how fragile the legal basis for our democratic rights in Canada are. However, when unions and community members fought back against Bill 24, they showed that the way to force governments to backtrack and respect democratic rights is to organize and demonstrate. In the same vein, we can no longer look at the fights led by community groups Ontario Place for All and Ontario Place Protectors in isolation. In fighting Ford’s new Ontario Place bill, they are fighting to protect the democratic rights of us all.
MPP Chris Glover (Spadina-Fort York) is the Ontario NDP critic for technology and democratic reform.