A tide of change sweeps Ontario

SHERRI AIKENHEAD January 12 1987

A tide of change sweeps Ontario

SHERRI AIKENHEAD January 12 1987

A tide of change sweeps Ontario

The incident dramatically underscored the lack of services available to Ontario’s half million French-speaking citizens. The francophone woman from Northern Ontario entered a Toronto hospital in 1985. She could not fully understand what her English-speaking doctor was telling her, and mistakenly thought he was going to perform a biopsy. But as she lay in a recovery room, a nurse told her that the doctor had removed one of her lungs. Since then, in one of the legislative initiatives that are bringing wide-ranging legal and social changes to the province, Ontario’s minority Liberal government has passed legislation aimed at preventing such misunderstandings. In November the provincial legislature guaranteed bilingual government services—including translators for unilingual francophones when necessary —in areas where French-speaking Ontarians make up at least 10 per cent of the population, including Toronto. Within three years health and other public services will also have to be provided in both English and French. Declared Serge Plouffe, president of the Ontario Francophone Association: “Five years ago we were not able to discuss such a law. There’s been a shift in attitudes of Ontarians.”

That shift in attitudes has helped to make Ontario politics more volatile than they have been in years. When the province’s legislature resumes next week following a three-week Christmas break, political activity will centre on the prospects for a provincial election as early as this spring that would render a verdict on Premier David Peterson’s activist administration. In a province historically noted for its entrenched, conservative attitudes, Peterson’s government—which took office after the May, 1985, election that ended 42 years of Conservative rule— has set a hectic pace.

Responding to the province’s increasingly urban and multicultural makeup, the Liberal government has put forward measures that in some cases would have seemed unthinkable a few years ago, even under a majority government. Among them: a bitterly debated amendment to the province’s Human Rights Code that was passed in December and outlaws discrimination against homosexuals, and pending legislation to ensure that Ontario’s public sector employees receive equal pay for work of equal value, regardless of sex.

The toughest test of the Peterson

government came last summer after the legislature outlawed the practice among some Ontario doctors of charging fees higher than those set by the province’s medicare system. When doc-

tors protested by withdrawing all but emergency services for 25 days, the government stood its ground and the doctors returned to work. Declared University of Toronto political economist John Crispo: “Peterson seems to be walking on water as if he could do no wrong. Whether his policies have merit or not, the folks love him.” Despite its popularity, Peterson’s government—which has only 50 elected members in the 125-seat legislature, compared with 51 Conservatives led by Larry Grossman—can pass legislation only with the support of another party. So far, that support has been provided, with rare exceptions, by the NDP, with 23 members, under the terms of an unusual political accord worked out in May, 1985. Under that accord, the NDP agreed to support Peterson’s government for two years—in return for ac-

tion on a slate of issues that the New Democrats regard as priorities. That limited Liberal-NDP partnership has produced an array of new laws and draft legislation. It ranges from a pro-

posed provincial freedom of information act to measures aimed at imposing heavy fines and prison sentences on industrial polluters. The Liberals have also taken some important initiatives on their own—including opening up the province’s investment industry to foreign competition and other financial institutions.

Though neither Grossman’s Conservatives nor the NDP are anxious for an election, the chances of one in the near future are increasing as the May 28 expiry date of the Liberal-NDP accord draws near. Already strains in the agreement have become apparent. The New Democrats, along with the Tories, have attacked the government’s proposed equal-pay legislation, saying it will take too long to go into effect.

In a more serious split with Peterson’s Liberals, the NDP refused to sup-

port a government bill to revise the province’s rent-control law. The legislation would replace a fixed annual ceiling on rent increases with a sliding scale based on inflation and operating costs. When the measure passed in December, it was with Conservative rather than NDP support. And the New Democrats have protested the Peterson government’s refusal to fine some doctors who

have begun billing their patients for administrative costs not covered under medicare. NDP Leader Bob Rae told Mac -lean ’s: “The Liberals are masters of optics, of packaging and presenting things. But when you open them up, there is less there than you think.”

But other observers say that the current tide of change in the country’s most populous and most industrialized province is real—and overdue. Noted Desmond Morton, a social historian at the University of Toronto: “Ontario, more than any other province, is adjusting to the social implications of two-income families [such as the need for more child-care services], and the electorate expects the government to respond.” Morton added that other social forces are at play, including the fact that a quarter of Ontario’s nine million residents are now of non-Anglo-Saxon stock. That, said Morton, has “changed Ontario from a province run by fine old families to one adjusting to its urbanization and ethnicity.” Morton said that the new ethnic groups tend to have liberal social atti-

tudes, so their growth has taken support away from the Conservatives.

The drop in Tory support in the 1985 election provided a clear signal for change. Since then the Liberals’ continuing popularity has strengthened their mandate for reform. A poll conducted in November by Environics Research Group Ltd. put Liberal support at 47 per cent, compared with 30 per

cent for the Conservatives and 21 per cent for the NDP. But even Liberal insiders admit that the government has had its share of good luck, particularly the economic boom being enjoyed by the province’s industrial sector at a time when other regions of the country are stagnating. Declared Bernard Wilson, president of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, whose members have bitterly opposed some Liberal measures, including its equal-pay proposals:

“Put together a government with a short mandate and a buoyant economy and there is an excellent opportunity for social change.”

Still, Peterson’s young government has had its share of teething troubles. In June two ministers resigned over conflict-of-interest

allegations, and in December Kenneth Keyes resigned as solicitor general after it was revealed that he had broken the law by drinking beer with a visiting Scotland Yard official aboard a provincial police patrol boat. But Peterson’s own popularity appears to be immune to the kind of damage that usually accompanies forced cabinet resignations. Indeed, journalists covering the legislature have labelled Peterson the “Teflon premier” because his government’s difficulties do not appear to affect his standing with the public. Recently the 43-year-old premier has taken on the folksy style favored by his Tory predecessors. While he chatted with callers on an open-line radio show last fall, Peterson’s most revealing admission was that his mother complained that he did not smile enough in public. Still, Peterson has in other ways brought a strikingly new approach to the premier’s office. When he addressed the legislature during the emotional debate on homosexual rights, Peterson—who has two sons and a daughter—asked members to consider what they would do if their own sons acknowledged being homosexual.

With less than five months left in the Liberal-NDP accord, Peterson will likely call an election this spring or summer. If he does, the Liberals will have in their favor their own generally polished performance and the lacklustre image of the other two parties. At the same time, some of the government’s boldest measures, such as the decision to protect the rights of homosexuals, have angered some voters. Declared David Somerville, president of the rightwing National Citizens’ Coalition: “There are a lot of voters who feel disenchanted with Peterson’s interventionism.” But the level of disenchantment so far is unlikely to prevent Peterson’s buoyant Liberals from returning to office later this year with a solid majority.