MPPs are pulling an all-nighter thanks to Premier Doug Ford’s frantic efforts to cut Toronto city council down to size in time for next month’s municipal election.
Thwarted by the courts and stymied by legislative procedural wrangling, Ford took the extraordinary step of convening a House sitting beginning at 12:01 a.m. Monday.
Scores of Legislative Assembly employees were called in on overtime to ensure the building is fully staffed for the rare overnight session.
Ford could not say how much it was costing taxpayers, but insisted he has no regrets with streamlining Toronto city council to 25 members from a planned 47 after the Oct. 22 election.
“I’m feeling great because hopefully this is one further step to get this bill moving forward,” the premier told reporters in a brief scrum shortly before midnight.
The Progressive Conservatives had some good news from Speaker Ted Arnott early Monday.
Arnott rejected a formal NDP complaint that Bill 31 was out of order because it is virtually identical to Bill 5, which is against the rules because duplicate legislation cannot be tabled in the same session.
The Speaker ruled that because Bill 31 includes the notwithstanding clause, it is significantly different from Bill 5.
Hundreds of people lined up in the wee hours to gain access to the public galleries.
Former NDP MPP Cheri Di Novo, a United Church minister, was ejected from the members’ gallery for protesting moments after being introduced to the legislature.
“You’re better than this. You don’t have to vote with him,” Di Novo implored Tory MPPs.
“This is a sad, sad day,” the former Parkdale-High Park MPP said as she was ushered away.
Outside the building, scores of people began chanting after being refused entry.
“Let us in! Let us in! Let us in!” they yelled.
“Whose huse? Our house! Whose house? Our house! Whose house? Our house!” the protesters continued.
“Notwithstanding, we’re here standing!”
Their shouts could be heard in the chamber when Attorney General Caroline Mulroney was discussing how Toronto city council is “dysfunctional.”
“Decision-making at city council is far from efficient,” she said at 1 a.m.
From the public galleries a man shouted “this is our government” before being escorted out. Arnott was forced to recess the House for 10 minutes.
Mulroney, who could win a stay of Belobaba’s ruling on Tuesday at the Court of Appeal, is under pressure from the legal community to stop Ford from using the notwithstanding clause for the first time in Ontario history.
“We … are writing this open letter to you because your office is assigned to champion and safeguard the fundamental principles of the rule of law and due process in Ontario, and the rights of the people,” said a letter Sunday to Mulroney, signed by 400 lawyers.
“We are gravely concerned about Premier Doug Ford’s proposed use of the notwithstanding clause to pass (the) bill … and are writing this letter to urge you not to support this unprecedented act,” the missive said.
Will Hutcheson, a Toronto family lawyer who authored the group letter, said “its trivial use in this case now threatens the charter itself.”
“There are people here from all different walks of life and also from all points on the political spectrum. This is an issue that very much crosses party lines,” said Hutcheson.
“As a citizen and a lawyer I felt that this was one of those moments where I had to draw a line in the sand and stand up for our rights. Clearly there are hundreds of other lawyers who feel the same.”
Eighty law school professors dispatched a similar letter of protest to Ford and Mulroney.
“We recognize that it is entirely within your government’s power to invoke the notwithstanding clause. But it should never be the first resort – it should be the last.
The notwithstanding clause must be the exception – not the rule,” the legal experts wrote.
The three key architects of the notwithstanding clause, former justice ministers Jean Chrétien, Roy McMurtry and Roy Romanow, have implored Ford not to use it.
Former Tory premier Bill Davis, former NDP premier Bob Rae, and former Liberal premier David Peterson have also criticized its use.
NDP MPP Catherine Fife said Ontarians should get used to such drama and turmoil at Queen’s Park.
“We’re here discussing the new culture of politics in Ontario, the Ford culture, which involves dismantling our democracy with the introduction of the notwithstanding clause,” Fife (Waterloo) told the legislature during a 46-minute Saturday session.
MPPs did not sit Sunday, because the fledgling government was unable to formally request that in time.
Government House Leader Todd Smith is hopeful the second reading of the bill can be finished by Monday morning and that MPPs can still break Tuesday for the International Plowing Match rural expo in Chatham-Kent.
That would mean Bill 31 could pass by Wednesday or Thursday.
City clerk Ulli Watkiss has warned that a fair Oct. 22 municipal election was “becoming virtually impossible to carry out,” so the clock is ticking for the Progressive Conservatives.
Watkiss, who has taken the unusual step of retaining her own outside legal counsel, said in court filings Friday printers would need to work 14 hours a day for seven days to prepare the 2.6 million ballots.
“The current schedule does not provide any room for slippage for unanticipated issues or the correction of errors,” she said in her submission to court.
Ballots cannot yet be printed because it remains uncertain whether there will be 47 council wards or 25.
Even though the Conservatives never once mentioned slashing the size of Toronto council during the spring election campaign, MPPs have fallen in line behind Ford, who believes the move will end “dysfunction” and “gridlock” at city hall.
“I’m blessed to have some great political moments — this was one of them on a beautiful Saturday afternoon at Queen’s Park,” tweeted Energy Minister Greg Rickford, above a photograph of Ford and a dozen cabinet members signing the order-in-council for the midnight sitting.
Rickford’s riding of Kenora-Rainy River is 1,800 km from Toronto.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, pointing out the province lost more than 80,000 jobs in August, expressed concern that MPPs would be spending time debating the size of Toronto council instead of more urgent matters.
“There’s only one way for this madness to stop and that’s for the government to withdraw the bill and we can all go back to doing the things that Ontarians expect us to be doing,” said Horwath.
“We have a premier who is more focused on his grudge match with Toronto than on the important things that families need,” she said.
Liberal MPP Nathalie Des Rosiers said Ford, who was defeated in the 2014 Toronto mayoral race by John Tory, needs “to step up to the plate, act like the leader of Ontario and not the mayor of Toronto.”
“Stop trampling on local democracy, and please come up and do what your job is supposed to do,” Des Rosiers (Ottawa-Vanier) chided the premier.
If the Tories win a stay at the Court of Appeal, that would neutralize Belobaba’s decision and render Bill 31 unnecessary, nullifying the need for the notwithstanding clause.
Green Leader Mike Schreiner said the “manufactured crisis” is all so Ford can settle his “personal political vendetta” against his foes at city hall.