OTTAWA—Premier Doug Ford almost ground Ontario to a halt by trying to bludgeon a thorn in his side. In other words, Ford fucked around and found out.
The Ford government attempted to shove a garbage deal down the throats of some of our more vulnerable and lowest-paid education workers, including caretakers, librarians, and early childhood educators. These workers make, on average, $39,000 a year. Global News reported on the original deal, which was a slap in the face to anyone with a couple of brain cells to rub together: “The government had originally offered raises of two per cent a year for workers making less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all others, and the four-year deal imposed by the soon-to-be-repealed law gave 2.5 per cent annual raises to workers making less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent raises for all others.”
Forty-three-thousand dollars, in this economy? This is an effective pay cut in real wage terms.
The education workers’ union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), sought an 11.7 per cent raise (note that inflation sits at 6.9 per cent, so their real wage increase is 4.8 per cent). When the union notified the government of its intent to strike, the government responded by introducing Bill 28, deceitfully called, Keeping Students in Class Act. Within this bill was use of the notwithstanding clause—or Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms—that allows the government to suspend rights enshrined in the Charter, such as the right to collective bargaining, Section 2(d), or Freedom of Association. This right is unequivocal, as Justice Canada’s website highlights: “The purposive right protects associations’ activities, including collective bargaining and striking, that enable individuals who are vulnerable and ineffective to meet on more equal terms the power and strength of those with whom their interests interact or conflict.” And that is the point: it aims to level the playing field for those with less power. Good thing we live in a democracy, or so I’ve been told.
The notwithstanding clause was originally proposed by then-Alberta premier Peter Lougheed during the 1981 constitutional round. Lougheed thought the clause “allows effective political action on the part of legislators to curb an errant court,” as told by Points of View/Points de vue, a paper series published by the Centre for Constitutional Studies at the University of Alberta. It had been used by Quebec in 1982 “as a form of political protest against the patriation package”; in 1988 “to shield Quebec’s language of commercial signs law prompted the withdrawal of the support of the Manitoba Legislature to the Meech Lake Accord, leading ultimately to the Accord’s demise in 1989”; and its use had been proposed in Alberta “to place limits on damages available to victims of forced sterilization,” which was promptly criticized and within 24 hours the Alberta government backed down. This is the third time (after 2018 and 2021) the Ford government has introduced the clause, which previously had never been used by an Ontario government. Keeping in step with Ford, Quebec Premier François Legault used Section 33 to impose the discriminatory Bill 21 onto racialized and religious people in Quebec (this bill also disproportionately affects women). He also used it to impose Bill 96, Quebec’s French language law, guaranteed to discriminate against non-French speakers in the province.
Increasingly, the notwithstanding clause is being used by provincial governments to enshrine discriminatory laws that target the most vulnerable, who will more likely be racialized, queer, female, and of precarious work and/or immigration status. In other words, provincial governments are using this clause to ensure an underclass of people who are not white, wealthy, and male.
Let’s take a look at the demographics of those whom the Ford government is targeting, as explained in The Globe and Mail: “Women comprise more than 70 per cent of the 55,000 Canadian Union of Public Employees education support staff fighting for fair wages, including education assistants, library workers, administrative staff, custodians, early childhood educators and school safety staff.” And from what I saw when I joined the picket line on Nov. 4, a lot of those women were racialized.
But let’s be honest, the Ford government loves picking on women. In 2019, Ford legislated wage suppression in the nursing profession with Bill 124, which, as The Globe explains, “caps wage increases for public-sector workers to [one]-per-cent annually for three years. The public sector is dominated by women, and some areas, such as nursing, are about 90-per-cent women.” At the same time, this bill exempted frontline workers such as firefighters and police, which are male-dominated professions. A coalition of unions is taking the government to court over this bill, which is another substantial wage cut for female workers in this economy.
A wage cut that primarily affects women is gender pay discrimination and is another violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but Ford has been able to slither his way through the muck of injustice without much being said—until now. Did I mention that GO Transit bus drivers are on strike? At this rate, by end of Ford’s term we’ll have no public services left, which is exactly the point.
Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.