Will you Break the Law Somehow?: Civil Disobedience and Ontario’s Common Sense Revolution

Doug Nesbitt

The only good thing in the Nineties
Are the things that used to be
Before Mulroney’s Loonie
Free trade and the GST

A 59-year-old Stompin Tom Connors dropped these bars in October 1995 with Long Gone To The Yukon, an album that climbed to #5 on the Canadian country charts.[1]

Uncharacteristically political for Connors, “How Do You Like It Now” evoked solidarity with working people and farmers, defended the social safety net and unemployment insurance, and railed against corporate power and free trade.

The refrain, the same as the song’s title, conveyed the distinct feeling that the “producing” classes had been hoodwinked. “That great big chin had a beautiful grin, but how do you like it now?”

Stompin’ Tom closed out his lament with a challenge,

How do you like it now?
Will you break the law somehow?
The crooks have guns, but you can’t have one.
How do you like it now?

Cryptic in its simplicity, Connors was possibly referencing the Liberal Party’s 1995 Firearms Act. However, for a song describing politicians and corporations as crooks, it can easily be read as a comment on their police powers. In this light, it is an incendiary provocation.

Whatever Stompin’ Tom’s intent, the album landed in record stores as Ontario Premier Mike Harris and his newly-elected Common Sense Revolutionaries were initiating their legislative blitzkrieg.

The blitzkrieg, however, ran up against fierce resistance which escalated into massive strikes and marches. Over the next two years, hundreds of thousands of people would break the law in a bid to break from the neoliberal Nineties.

Hot autumn
Labour Day parades were exceptionally large in 1995. A sprawling procession of 20,000 union members snaked through downtown Toronto. A record 7,000 attended the Labour Day parade in Premier Harris’s hometown of North Bay. Two days later, on September 6, the Ontario Provincial Police opened fire on Indigenous protesters occupying Ipperwash Provincial Park. Dudley George, one of the protesters, was fatally wounded. Immediately, fingers were pointing at the Premier.

George’s police murder set the tone for a protest of ten thousand people at the opening of the legislature on September 27. At one point, dozens of protesters tried to breach the metal barricades and storm the doors of Queen’s Park, resulting in fights with police and security guards.

The legislative agenda which followed was fast and furious. Fulfilling two signature promises with lightning speed, Harris slashed welfare rates by 21.6 percent on October 1, and gutted Ontario’s labour laws a few days later.

The mood was not lost on Harris. He wore a flak jacket under his suit and tie as he tapped the kegs at Oktoberfest in Kitchener. Hundreds turned out to crash the festivities and the Premier was hit with eggs.

Less than a week later, at a party fundraiser in Kingston, several hundred protesters fought a pitched battle with police in an effort to breach the country club’s main doors. Harris, the guest of honour, hid in a car in the parking lot. Later in October, at a banquet hall party fundraiser in Concord, a gauntlet of protesters smeared bologna and mustard on the expensive cars of PC Party donors. Responding to critics, one Kingston protester told a report, “I don’t care if I get a criminal record for doing this because I don’t think we should follow unjust laws.”

With rumours of formally illegal walkouts in Ontario’s auto plants, the province’s senior union leaders channeled the anger into the Days of Action. Authorized by the Ontario Federation of Labour’s biennial convention in late November, the Days of Action was a plan for one-day city-wide general strikes designed to prepare the province for bigger disruptions.

The Days of Action were premised on punishing the business class so they’d beg their Premier to abandon the Common Sense Revolution. As one London, Ontario union leader explained it, “the way he is hurting ordinary people in the province is fairly illegal – if not illegal, definitely immoral. Drastic times call for drastic measures.”

Intimidating the legislature
Civil disobedience extended into Queen’s Park itself. On December 6, where Liberal MPP Alvin Curling, Ontario’s first black legislator, conducted a sit-in to procedurally block the advance of the omnibus Bill 26 which sought a radical restructuring of the provincial state. With support from both Liberal and NDP legislators, Curling’s sit-in forced Harris to concede public hearings on Bill 26, and buying time for more resistance to be organized.

“I think the government has learned a lesson today,” said NDP MPP Dave Cooke. “And the lesson is just because you’ve got 82 seats in the legislature doesn’t mean you can reign like a bunch of dictators.”

Five days later, the London Days of Action defied predictions of a big flop, and 30,000 workers stayed off the job, shutting down most government services and the region’s strong manufacturing sector. A month later, 35,000 people rallied at Queen’s Park against education cuts. By late February, the Hamilton Action Days turned the industrial centre into a ghost town as 300 picket lines dotted the city. A march of over 100,000 wound its way through the downtown. Some polling surveys were beginning to show Harris slipping behind the Liberals.

Civil disobedience, breaking the law and defying employers had become the legitimate form of political opposition. And it looked like it was starting to have an impact.

Although London’s Day of Action was remarkably disciplined – one person was arrested for breaking a window – a clash in the Queen’s Park lobby on February 7 resulted in sensational media coverage of a “wild melee” of students smashing windows and fighting police and security guards. Students testified that their sit-in was attacked from behind by police, but video footage of subsequent window breaking was the lead.

Several students were charged with assault, resisting arrest, mischief, breaking and entering and an archaic 1848 law “intimidating the Legislature.” A few weeks later, students marching Hamilton sported the button “I intimidated the legislature”.

Crowd control
As confrontations escalated, the province authorized “crowd control” funding for the Hamilton-Wentworth police shortly before the local Days of Action. The Waterloo Regional Police also got funding to establish their crowd control unit shortly before the Kitchener-Waterloo Days of Action in April. Neither unit “saw action” at the protests, but that was not the case with the OPP’s “crowd management” squad.

The culmination of the hot autumn and winter was Ontario Public Service strike spanning five weeks in February and March of 1996. The government was following through on its promise of 13,000 job cuts out of a civil service of 65,000.

Three weeks into the strike, the union organized mass pickets at Queen’s Park and other government buildings to mark the legislature’s reopening. With little warning and no negotiations or provocation, the OPP crowd management squad unleashed a series of vicious attacks on picket lines to escort Harris, his cabinet and backbenchers through.

With graphic video and photographic evidence, the OPP and government was hammered in the press, forcing them to launch an investigation they’d initially refused. Legitimizing the media’s line of attack, a Metro Toronto police officer told the Toronto Star that he overheard OPP officers issuing orders to “whack’em and stack’em.” One “high-ranking” Toronto officer described the OPP as “animals.” The commander of the OPP Squad, Jay Hope, replied “Anyone who got hurt brought it on themselves.”

Although no subsequent confrontation ever arose, Gord Wilson, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour responded to Hope, “The next time you and your goon squad attack, we will be ready. I can assure you that the next round of `whack ’em and stack ’em’ will have a far different result and `kisses will be blown’ from a diametrically different direction.”

A law-abiding society
Despite Wilson’s fiery words, senior union leaders became deeply concerned about media representations and public perceptions of protest violence. The monster march in Hamilton was diverted away from the downtown hotel hosting the Ontario PC Party’s convention. Speaking on behalf of the Hamilton organizing committee, union leader Wayne Marston said they were “not interested in coming into direct contact with Mike Harris.” During the big march, a wall of union marshals stopped some postal workers from leading a breakaway march on the hotel.

Union leaders also responded to messy parks and municipal policing costs by developing clean-up plans with city managers in subsequent Days of Action. Collaboration with employers also became more common as the Days of Action progressed. Paid and unpaid holidays, and professional development days were moved around or implemented to accommodate “strikes.”

Even so, mass civil disobedience and strikes would persist through the following two years. It even inflicted defeats on the Common Sense Revolution. Massive healthcare and hospital cuts were severely blunted. Mandatory workfare and a radical marketization of childcare was abandoned.

The last great battle of the Common Sense Revolution was a two-week “political protest” by teachers in late 1997. It was in fact an unprecedented illegal walkout. “We live in a law-abiding society,” lectured Harris on a major TV commercial during the strike. “Breaking the law is not the right example. Let’s put our children first.”

But Harris had miscalculated in targeting the teachers. The walkout was very popular. Pundits believed Harris had met his match and were now predicting a one-term government. But when the promise of sympathy strikes did not emerge, three of the five teacher unions called off the protest. Within a few days, it was all over. A sense of demoralization and defeat set in.

How do you like it now?
The following summer, plans for a province-wide general strike were shelved by senior union leaders embroiled in a vicious civil war over electoral strategy. Some unions would endorse the NDP with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The Canadian Auto Workers voted to endorse strategic voting to defeat the Tories. Other unions plowed their resources into third-party advertising to promote “issue-based” voting campaigns. None worked.

Harris recovered in the polls and won a solid majority in June 1999. NDP support at the polls plummeted to 551,009 votes – the lowest since the NDP’s first Ontario election in 1963. The Liberals, led by its new leader Dalton McGuinty, gained nearly 9 points but Harris remained a solid 5 points ahead, even improving upon his 1995 popular and absolute vote.

During the height of the protests, strikes and civil disobedience, the PCs lagged behind the Liberals in most polls from early 1996 through much of 1998. Through 1997, pundits predicted a one-term government. Exhausted, bruised and battered, the Common Sense Revolution was effectively over by 1998. But it was also the end the extra-parliamentary opposition.

Whether or not the extra-parliamentary opposition could have continued and defeated Harris can never be known. The mandate for a province-wide general strike and opportunities for sympathy strikes did exist, but their prospects for victory have always been disputed. Organized labour’s adoption of a strictly electoral strategy failed to defeat Harris, but succeeded in burying mass civil disobedience. It was a dramatic narrowing of what constitutes political action in opposition to neoliberalism.

Wrapped up in legislative and legal processes and the architecture of industrial relations, the Common Sense Revolution was a profoundly coercive and violent transformation. Popular forces responded in kind, with hundreds of thousands of people answering Stompin’ Tom’s question “Will you break the law somehow?” with a resounding “YES!”

For a brief moment, it seemed civil disobedience could derail the neoliberal onslaught. It seemed another Nineties was possible.

Doug Nesbitt is the editor of rankandfile.ca, and a former union organizer in the custodial and homecare sectors. He is currently writing his first book, a history of the Harris years in Ontario.

[1] You can listen to the song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJaRCtNJY4I

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