Canada is known for its moderation, its multicultural, multireligious society, and its tolerance. That's why the June 1995 provincial election in Ontariowhen the Conservative Party replaced the left-wing New Democratsrepresented a sea change in the province's, and the nation's, political life.
Since his election as premier, Mike Harris, a former golf pro from North Bay, Ontario, has introduced a series of measures inspired by Republican state governments in Michigan and New Jersey, including a 30 percent tax cut, a 22 percent cut in benefits to welfare recipients, workfare programs, dramatic cuts in education and support to municipal governments, restructuring of the health care system, and the repeal of laws favorable to labor unions.
Harris only won 45 percent of the vote in that election. Many of the voters who supported the opposition Liberal and New Democratic Parties have been outraged by the rapid pace of change and the failure of the government to soften its right-wing agenda.
As a result Ontarians have taken their political protests to the street. On October 26 in Toronto, more than 200,000 people took part in the largest protest march in Canadian history. The march, part of five "Days of Action" in Canada's largest city, was organized by a unique coalition of labor unions, churches, non-profit agencies, and community groups opposed to the Harris government.
This is the first time such a broad-based social movement has come together in Toronto, and the organizers say it won't be a one-shot deal. Many of those in the march had never before attended a political protest. They saw firsthand how the media, owned by powerful corporate interests, distort coverage of any popular movement. The three major Toronto newspapers all accepted the police estimate of about 80,000 protesters. Yet many observers felt the size of the protest was closer to the crowds for the annual Santa Claus and Caribana Parades, which papers routinely estimate at 500,000.
But numbers aside, Ontarians of all political stripes have raised serious questions about the morality of a government that hands out tax cuts that benefit higher income people most, while at the same time cutting back welfare and non-profit day-care programs.
AN ANGLICAN PRIEST said his father, who was chair of the Conservative caucus during the time the party ruled Ontario for 30 years before 1985, was "apoplectic" over the changes being introduced. Another Conservative, who is chair of Canada's largest school board just west of Toronto, strongly attacked her party for a plan to abolish all the province's school boards and consolidate power in the hands of provincial bureaucrats.
For churches, the polarized politics of Ontario under Mike Harris is a minefield. Some churches supported the Days of Action. Others maintained a neutral stance. Bishop Terry Finlay of the Anglican diocese of Toronto set up a tax redirection fund so that parishioners could donate the equivalent of their tax cuts to social agencies suffering cutbacks in government support.
The most alarming prospect for the 55 percent of Ontarians who didn't vote for Harrisand the ones who did but now regret itis that the government has pledged to "stay the course" no matter what its opponents say or do. The government won't have to face the voters again until 1999, and it could do significant damage to the province in the meantime.
If the impact of the cutbacks is as bad as the Days of Action protesters fear, pressure on the government to soften its radical right-wing agenda will be enormous. Ontarians aren't used to the politics of confrontation. They are used to consensus and moderation. Under the Tories that may be a thing of the past.
Perhaps the greatest impact of the Days of Action will not be seen in its results in changed government policy. Indeed the Harris government showed in the weeks after the protest that it is determined not to back down on its wide-ranging cutbacks.
But for the first time a social movement has been formed that goes beyond agreement on a single issue. At the march, doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, trade unionists, day-care workers, pensioners, students, small-business people, members of ethnic communities, and church groups all walked together in protest against the small neoconservative minority that threatens to destroy the fabric of the province. Now that such a movement has begun, it will be hard to stop, and it could offer lessons for popular movements throughout North America.
BOB BETTSON is a member of an Anglican congregation in Regent Park, Toronto's largest low-income area. He has written for the United Church Observer, The Anglican Journal, and Faith Today and is past president of Canadian Church Press.