If Ford is correct, Canada’s political culture is in the midst of a profound shakeup. For 36 years, successive federal prime ministers and Ontario premiers have simply assumed that they would pay a massive political price for giving the back of the hand to the Charter rights that citizens are supposed to hold so dear.
Ford’s gambit makes no such assumption. The premier is, in fact, gambling that Ontario voters see Charter rights in the same way they view an abundance of city councillors — as excess, expensive baggage on an efficient ship of state.
Or put it another way: if this move gets a simple shrug from Ontario citizens, public opinion is no longer an effective check on politicians who find the Charter of Rights an obstacle to governance. So who is going to be the next premier to find the Charter inconvenient? It might well be Ford, in fact, since the premier seemed to leave the door open to using the “notwithstanding” clause again in the future. Is there a price to be paid for that move? Clearly Ford does not think so.
The world really has turned upside down since another prime minister, one Pierre Trudeau, wanted to give Canadians a Charter of Rights to empower individuals against the power of the state. Yes, it’s true — four decades ago, the Charter was a trophy of 20th century populism. Anyone getting a bad deal from government had the Charter’s protection.
But 21st-century populism, or Ford’s version of it, is putting the Charter on the opposite side of the people. Charter rights are for judges, lawyers, and urban elites, Ford effectively said at his remarkable news conference on Monday. Over and over again, he posed the question: What would you rather have — some court-ordered Charter rights or a leaner, meaner city hall, relieved of some troublesome “downtown” and “NDP” councillors?