Movement building

To beat Ford’s austere agenda, the grassroots must unite

Simmering anger, frustration, and disapproval of Ontario premier may prove helpful to struggles on the ground
Photo: Bruce Reeve
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Ontarians aren’t bending over for Premier Doug Ford. Though the premier got his way on Sept. 19, when a court ruling allowed the slashing of Toronto’s city council, a series of flash demonstrations and protests outside Queen’s Park have shown that people are angry.

But activists warn that to keep the momentum going, it must be linked to broader social and grassroots movements across the country that have been fighting for the rights of workers and minorities — lest it all fizzles when the media moves on.

“If we can go out and build a broader working-class movement as the face of the anti-Ford opposition, then we’ll be in a better place,” said David Bush, editor of Rankandfile.ca, a Canadian labour news site.

“It has to be able to connect to issues that also directly impact workers’ lives.”

‘Under the gun’

The Ontario Court of Appeal ruling in favour of Ford’s bill to cut the number of Toronto city wards by almost half means the city will have only 25 councillors instead of 47 after the municipal election on Oct. 22. In the end, Ford’s threat to invoke the notwithstanding clause was unnecessary.

Nevertheless, Bush suggested, the lesson to be drawn is clear: Ford is willing to do anything to get his way. And if he was willing to go this far on what is, by all accounts, an issue that matters to few people outside of Toronto’s liberal middle class, then it’s a safe bet he will go after that which threatens the wealthy ruling class to which he caters. Everything from gains in labour laws with Bill 148 to reforms in education policy, social safety nets, health care, immigration, and Indigenous resistance will “slide under the gun,” said Bush.

“There is a danger with some people thinking (the notwithstanding clause) is the key issue,” he added. “I think it’s something to be concerned about … but does it mobilize people beyond a core group of 400 or 500?”

Perhaps — if the opportunity is seized.

When the iron is hot

The sheer speed with which demonstrations and petitions against Ford have been organized shows a simmering discontent even among a dispersed, unorganized middle class.

In a matter of hours and days following Ford’s bombshell announcement on Sept. 10 that he would use the nonwithstanding clause to get his way, hundreds of lawyers, dozens of professors, civil liberties associations, and non-profit organizations joined others in a disparate chorus of dissent and opposition. On Sept. 21, tens of thousands of high school students walked out of classes, demanding Ford reinstate a modernized sex-ed curriculum and improve Indigenous education.

“Resistance is definitely a silver lining.”

Even the three so-called architects of the absurd notwithstanding clause have publicly berated Ford. In a joint statement sent to the Toronto Star last month, they chided Ford for using a mechanism they say “was not designed to be used by governments as a convenience or as a means to circumvent proper process” but as a “last resort.”

The president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association compared Ford to a capricious but dangerous child. NDP MPPs, including leader Andrea Horwath, had to be escorted out of the legislature on Sept. 17 after banging on their desks to drown out the reading of the bill during its midnight reading session.

The grassroots cannot overlook the importance of such “gestures,” said Bush, even if they come from the NDP.

“When the NDP makes gestures that, yes, you should protest and take action, every activist should take that literally and apply that across the board to whatever they’re working on,” he said.

This means doubling and redoubling efforts to educate, organize, and mobilize co-workers, students, family members, and neighbours towards petitions, rallies, protests, and other resistance movements.

The point, according to author and activist Yves Engler, is “all about organizing.” To strike while the iron is hot, as it were.

“Resistance is definitely a silver lining, there is no doubt about that,” said Engler..

“But you would like to believe that this resistance will build and then will be a resistance to the whole right-wing agenda that Ford is pushing.”

A war on multiple fronts

Mercedes Lee from No One is Illegal, a grassroots group focusing on the rights of immigrants and minorities, also spoke of the importance of solidarity to fight a “war” being waged on “multiple fronts” — namely, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “sunny days facade” and the “rise of right-wing populism” that Ford and a “complicit” media have emboldened.

“Our streets have never been safe for our undocumented allies, neighbours, friends, and family,” said Lee on Sept. 19 as part of a panel where various grassroots groups shared challenges and strategies going forward.

“Our struggles have made it safer, but we have to continuously work together to protect these gains we’ve made.”

Less than a week later, on Sept. 25, the various Toronto-wide caucuses of the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign met and discussed strategies to battle Ford on the labour front and ensure the gains of Bill 148 are not rolled back.

Ford’s actions have drawn attention and indignation from many professionals and middle-class people.

“The use of the notwithstanding clause was an overreach that undermined support for the government well beyond the parameters of Toronto,” said Pam Frache, the campaign’s Ontario coordinator.

“Whereas someone may not pay a lot of attention to how many councillors exist in the city of Toronto, people paid clear and fast attention to the question of suspending human rights potentially in Ontario.”

Frache encouraged members to continue reaching out to people and MPPs even if they are in conservative ridings, reminding everyone that about 42 per cent of Progressive Conservative voters support a $15-per-hour minimum wage. “We are well positioned to capitalize on that and carry our movement forward,” she said as members applauded.

An autocratic majority

University of Toronto law and history professor Anver Emon said that while he believes there is reason to be angry at Ford over his bullish actions and threats, it’s easy to get sidetracked.

That’s why he has refused to jump atop what he called the “liberal outrage” bandwagon that “colleagues and others” are selectively boarding. What’s happening now on a relatively small, though concentrated, scale — government oppression, bullying, overreach — has been a mainstay in the lives of the poor, immigrant minorities, and the original peoples of Turtle Island since colonization, he said. The difference is that now it’s also happening to white people.

“If I were Indigenous, or a Black Canadian, I would say, ‘Wait a minute, the state tramples upon me all the time in the name of the very majority that is now outraged,” said Emon.

“Sure, you can say that this majority in government is autocratic, but they were just as autocratic when Toronto police were targeting Black Canadians at Jane and Finch, just as autocratic during the residential school programs, just as autocratic when they decide to limit immigration based on racial origin,” said Emon.

“So we do this all the time: we have restrictions, we have restraints. And they often affect minorities…. But other cases don’t get the same kind of airplay, the same kind of attention. My question is, why?”

Ford’s actions have drawn attention and indignation from many professionals and middle-class people. Debates about democracy are useful, and people should know what laws govern them, their origins and their limitations.

But Emon suggested this abstract exercise will yield little if not linked to concrete, real-life examples of the constant violation and infringement of racialized minorities’ rights.

Thanks to the actions of a right-wing politician who has alienated even large portions of his own voting base, many Ontarians may have found a reason to look to the grassroots. Likewise, the grassroots may have found a reason to learn to be more inclusive.

For everyone involved, education, solidarity, and organization is now key.

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