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TORONTO — Representatives have returned to Ontario’s legislature for an emergency weekend debate on election finance law with implications for free speech that experts warn may backfire on Premier Doug Ford’s government.
Debate was scheduled to start overnight into Saturday morning and continue over the next several days on the bill tabled this week using the notwithstanding clause — the rarely-used constitutional tool that allows legislatures to override portions of the charter of Rights and Freedoms for five years.
The bill in question restores rules on third-party ad spending which a provincial judge rejected as unconstitutional earlier this week. The law doubles the restricted third-party ad spending period to 12 months before an election campaign gets underway, but keeps the spending limit of $600,000 the same.
Unions have said the rules infringe on their rights to free speech. The Progressive Conservative government has argued the changes are necessary to protect elections from outside influence, but critics have been quick to label the move a power play aimed at silencing opposition ahead of next June’s election.
Western University political science professor Cristine de Clercy said the term “third party” may sound vague, but the legislation has free speech implications for the majority of Ontarians.
“It basically affects all the rest of us, all the people and groups who are not actual political parties,” she said in an interview.
Jeffrey Dvorkin, a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College, said there are also press freedom issues at stake.
News outlets often rely on the excess revenue from advertisements during elections, he said, and the changes to the Election Finances Act threaten that income stream.
“It’s dangerous politically, and it’s dangerous for a free media,” Dvorkin said. “It actually really has a lot of damaging consequences for the state of a healthy and independent media landscape, and I don’t think the government has considered this.”
At the heart of this weekend’s debate is an effort to balance free speech and fair access to political expression, de Clercy said, describing them as complicated issues that Canadian governments and courts have grappled with before.
It’s not usual for courts to find legislation unconstitutional and for governments to respond by re-drafting laws or appealing decisions, but de Clercy said Ford’s drastic methods — of using the notwithstanding clause and holding an emergency weekend debate to get it done quickly — stand out.
“It sort of underscores the concern that Mr. Ford is moving to expedite this legislation out of partisan self-interest, because he thinks that will help his party in the next election rather than because he thinks it’s good legislation that Ontarians need,” she said.
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Andrew McDougall, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said use of the notwithstanding clause is not a politically smart move because the baggage behind the measure often overpowers discussion about other issues.
“As soon as you use the nuclear option of the notwithstanding clause, it changes the entire tenor of the debate to one about civil liberties and how they can be limited, and that’s not a great message generally,” he said.
Experts agree that using the notwithstanding clause to push the legislation through will be unpopular. But since Ford’s government holds a majority, it’s likely to pass after the weekend of debate unless public pushback grows too strong.
De Clercy noted that Ford appears genuinely worried about third party influence, to the point that he’s willing to face the public after using such an unpopular legislative tool to push through a law deemed unconstitutional. However, she said his methods might contribute to the very problem he hopes to avoid.
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“In the very act of trying to perhaps control third party voices against him, he may actually generate more opposition than he can squash,” she said.
McDougall said the government also runs the risk of drowning out news stories that might reflect well on them, such as improvements in COVID-19-related trends and the first stage of the province’s economic reopening plan, which took effect on Friday.
“Instead of having that story, we’re going to have a discussion about civil liberties, which may not be the best political spin for them right now,” McDougall said. “It’ll be interesting to see how this debate plays out on their numbers.”
Opposition parties have acknowledged that they have limited options for fighting the bill. They began on Thursday by introducing motions on other issues to drag out the process, and have called on Ontarians to voice their concerns.
The vice president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, which was involved in the original court challenge, said on Friday that the union was looking into its legal options.
Karen Brown said at a news conference that no matter the outcome of the marathon weekend debate, voters can still mobilize against the government next June.
“Ford can pass legislation that tramples on our democratic Charter rights, but he will not silence us,” she said. “We can replace this government.”
© 2021 The Canadian Press
On Tuesday, the province announced that Ontario would enter into a state of emergency on Thursday while also issuing a stay-at-home order to residents.
The order, which has come as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, will take effect at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday and will last at least 28 days.
“Under this order, everyone must stay home and only go out for essential trips to pick up groceries, or go to medical appointments,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday, adding that walking pets or exercising is still permitted.
The announcement left many people looking for clarification as to what they were and weren’t still permitted to do over the next month, so a government spokesperson provided some clarification on Wednesday.
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“Ontario is a big, diverse province,” Travis Kann explained in an email while noting that residents in the city of Toronto would have easier access to online shopping than those in more remote areas.
“As such, and as we have from the very outset of this pandemic, we will continue to rely on the best judgment of Ontarians as they stay at home as much as possible and only leave their homes for essential purposes.”
The province says this is, in part, why they are still allowing curbside pickup despite issuing the stay-at-home order.
“We’ve learned a lot over the past year responding to this pandemic, including the fact that what may be essential to someone in Timmins and how they buy that item may not be essential to someone in downtown Toronto, who can easily buy items online for delivery,” it says.
Having the government of Ontario determine what retailers may consider as essential “risks cutting off many Ontarians who don’t live in Toronto or an urban centre from access to necessary goods,” the province says.
The government says it also cannot decide what is an essential item for every person across Ontario although it tried to clarify what would be considered an essential trip.
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“We have provided broad categories that people should consider before leaving their home: food, health-care services, including medication, exercise or work, where someone’s job cannot be done at home,” it said.
Ontario also won’t say what jobs are essential but did say that if you can work from home, work from home.
“The Government of Ontario cannot review tens of millions of job descriptions to determine who can work from home,” the update read. “As such, we are relying on the best judgment and common sense of employers to determine who can do so.
“If an employee believes they should be working from home, they can contact the Ministry of Labour to file a health and safety complaint.”
The province says it is not placing limits on how often or for how long people can leave their homes for essential trips, but is asking residents to try to limit the number of stores they visit and for how long.
The new restrictions also allow people to gather in groups of five outdoors, which the government says it is allowing so that people who live on their own can still have company or support for mental and physical wellbeing.
“Anyone gathering outside is expected to adhere to physical distancing measures and are now strongly urged to wear a mask,” the province said.
Single residents are also still permitted to join up with another household under the new restrictions for similar reasons.
One of the vaguest parts of the announcement was whether playgrounds or basketball courts are still in play for residents.
The government says that exercise is considered essential although how Ontarians choose to do so is unique to each household.
“Some may wish to go for a walk around the block, while others may wish to go to a local basketball court with their household to shoot some hoops,” the province said.
“We recommend that Ontarians consult their local public health unit or municipality to understand what recreational amenities are open in their community.”
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Finally, many have questioned whether residents will be allowed to travel to cottages or secondary residences.
“Right now, we are asking people to stay home and only leave their home for essential purposes, which could include emergency maintenance of a secondary residence,” it says.
“In the spirit of the stay-at-home order, at this time we are not recommending intra-provincial travel.”
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced Monday that Gen. Rick Hillier would head up a task force charged with distributing a COVID-19 to Ontarians once one is approved, saying that distributing the vaccine would be “the largest logistical undertaking in a generation.”
The Ontario government is committing nearly $1 billion over six years to improve and expand broadband internet and cellular access across the province.
In the village of Minden on Wednesday afternoon, Premier Doug Ford announced an additional investment of $680 million on top of $315 million announced in 2019 to support the province’s “Up to Speed: Ontario’s Broadband and Cellular Action Plan.”
“Reliable, high-speed internet is no longer a luxury, it is necessary for everyday life,” said Ford. “It allows people to bank, shop, learn to get their news or watch their favourite movies and we take that for granted.”
Ford says providing high-speed internet to communities like Minden, about 100 kilometres north of Peterborough, will create “good jobs” and unlock “new opportunities” for businesses and people.
“With the world online these days, if we are going to attract more investment to Ontario and compete in this highly competitive global marketplace, we need every part of our province connected with high-speed Internet,” said Ford, noting how more people have turned to internet since the coronavirus pandemic.
The province says more than 1.4 million people in Ontario do not have broadband or cellular access and up to 12 per cent of households (mostly rural, remote or Northern areas) are “underserved or unserved,” according to Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission data.
Minister of Infrastructure Laurie Scott called Wednesday’s announcement a “watershed moment” for broadband. The MPP for Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock says in an increasingly digital world, Ontarians need to be connected.
“This investment will connect even more residents in communities across Ontario to faster, more reliable internet and cell service,” said Scott. “Today’s commitment to connect more people to reliable broadband and cellular service ― along with many others we’ve made ― will make it easier for more people to work and learn from home, run their businesses and connect with others.”
The action plan aims to improve connections for up to 220,000 households and businesses, Scott said, and includes a $150-million infrastructure program beginning in 2020-21 with “shovel-ready projects.”
Scott did not outline any specific projects on Wednesday, stating funding is the “start of conversations” with municipalities and telecommunications partners along with expected support from Ottawa.
“We’re hopeful the federal government will release its Universal Broadband Fund — Ontario has stepped up and is putting $1 billion on the table,” she said.
“Ontario isn’t waiting any longer. That is why we are taking action today.”
Peter Bethlenfalvy, president of the Treasury Board, says the investment is a “signature project” of the Ontario Onwards Action Plan to make vital programs and services more convenient, reliable and accessible.
“We cannot afford to be an offline government in an online world,” said Bethlenfalvy.
The investment announced Wednesday also doubles funding for the Improving Connectivity in Ontario (ICON) program announced in June, bringing the new total to $300 million, said Scott. She said the program now has the potential to leverage more than $900 million in total partner funding to improve connectivity across Ontario.
Ontario has also partnered with the Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN) to invest $71 million in a $213-million project to improve access to cellular service and mobile broadband in Eastern Ontario.
Andy Letham, Mayor of the City of Kawartha Lakes and Brent Devolin, mayor of Minden Hills Township, both expressed their gratitude for Wednesday’s announcement.
“It will help connect more homes and businesses in Ontario communities and increase their economic competitiveness,” said Letham. “And improve the quality of life for residents and businesses.”
The action plan says coverage for internet connections should be at speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 10 Mbps upload.
Rocco Rossi, president & CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber welcomes the additional investments to help underserved communities.
“Canada’s telecommunications network is one of the most advanced networks in the world,” he said. “The vast majority of heavy lifting has been done by the private sector which has invested heavily in digital infrastructure. However, there remains unserved and underserved communities that require the government to step in.
“For business, health care and education, particularly those workers practicing physical distancing, connectivity is necessary to ensure they can remain productive by using digital tools such as video conferencing. Without adequate access, those in rural and remote regions will be vulnerable to additional layoffs and business closures. We hope to see the federal government consider how to both expedite and increase the federal investment for broadband connectivity to help further support Ontarians in unserved and underserved communities.”
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