Ontario’s Working Families coalition of construction unions and other social advocates sat out the last provincial election in 2018 but spokesperson Patrick Dillon, angry over the Doug Ford government’s recent use of the notwithstanding clause, is suggesting that may not be the case this time around.
Dillon, the business manager of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, said the coalition celebrated on June 8 when Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Morgan struck down the government’s Bill 254, the Protecting Ontario Elections Act, finding key provisions violated Charter section 2(b) of Canada’s Constitution protecting freedom of expression.
It was a different story a week later after the Progressive Conservative government invoked the notwithstanding clause as it hurriedly passed legislation to reimpose new restrictions on third-party advertising before and during Ontario elections.
“The government decided they are above the law, so they brought legislation back to show the people of Ontario that everybody else in Ontario needs to comply with the law but not the governing party of the province of Ontario,” said Dillon.
The notwithstanding clause protects legislation from Charter challenges for a period of five years.
Working Families mounted a constitutional challenge in January 2018 to then Kathleen Wynne government amendments introduced to the Election Finances Act in 2017. But before the challenge could be heard, the Ford government unveiled a 12-month restricted advertising period in legislation, doubling the existing six-month period.
Working Families amended its application to take into account the changes and the court agreed to hear the case on an expedited basis on June 2 and 3 with other advocates participating as well.
“Kathleen Wynne’s legislation was wrong,” said Dillon. “We were in the courts for the last three-and-a-half years, trying to get that into the courts, and then the (Ford) government doubled down with very similar language, only twice as bad.”
Bill 307, the new legislation, passed June 14 by a 63 to 47 vote.
Mike Yorke, president of the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario, said the Carpenters’ have been following the court challenge with great interest.
“The fundamental rights set out in our Charter are extremely important to all Canadians and that obviously means they are extremely important to the members of our union,” he said in a statement. “To have a government use the notwithstanding clause to take away those rights is very concerning.
“This is especially the case when the government is using this extraordinary power in a way which is clearly intended to shield itself from criticism.”
Labourers’ International Union of North America spokesperson Victoria Mancinelli said LIUNA is monitoring the situation but remains “indifferent.”
The Canadian Labour Congress and Ontario Federation of Labour issued statements “condemning” and expressing “outrage” at the Ford government’s decision to use the notwithstanding clause.
Ford ministers referred to the need to protect Ontario politics from deep-pocketed outside advocates in defending the legislation.
Premier Ford said, “We’re fighting for democracy.”
Ontario General Contractors Association president Giovanni Cautillo and Council of Ontario Construction Associations president Ian Cunningham both said they felt construction employers would not be significantly concerned by the new laws.
Dillon noted Working Families was active in the 2014 election opposing the platform of the Conservative opposition at the time but had achieved understandings with the Conservatives prior to the 2018 election.
Construction unions representing boilermakers, electrical workers, operating engineers, ironworkers, millwrights, the pipe trades, painters, sheet metal workers and roofers were all supporters of Working Families at one point.
Dillon would not enumerate which construction unions are still active in Working Families or confirm whether the coalition would become active in the 2022 campaign.
“We’re in discussions as we speak for next steps,” he said. “I can’t really comment any further than that, but I suspect that we’re alive and well.”
The government has shown it will be aggressive in clamping down on opponents, Dillon said, so potentially active members of Working Families are being careful in speaking out and committing to further activism.
During the 2014 campaign, Dillon noted, Working Families campaigned against then PC leader Tim Hudak’s anti-union right-to-work stance and admission that 100,000 provincial employees might be let go to strengthen government finances. Dillon hesitated to state what issues might be the focus of anti-government opposition in the 2022 campaign.
“I can’t really say other than to say it would be evident by the government action that they expected Working Families to be active.
“Whatever positions that we take, it’s a pretty democratic organization. Whatever we would do would never be intended to trample on others. That’s a principle maybe the government should adopt.”
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.