“The government blinked,” read the CBC headline. The Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce confirmed that his government will repeal Bill 28 “in its entirety.” He was referring of course to the infamous legislation that imposed a contract on 55,000 CUPE education workers while banning strikes and invoking the Charter’s Section 33, the “notwithstanding clause,” to deny them their constitutional rights.

Section 33 allows legislatures to override the Charter’s Sections 2 and 7 to 15, which includes freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association, i.e. the right to strike, as well as the “right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment,” i.e excessive fines.

Under the legislation, the government would have imposed a 2.5 per cent annual raise to workers making less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent raises for all others. If the workers struck they would have been subjected to crushing fines of $4,000 per worker per day

The union’s initial demand was 11.7 per cent but claimed it had reduced that by more than half in a counter-offer. This sounds high, but from 2012 to 2021 the wages of education workers increased by about 8.5 per cent while inflation in Ontario rose 17.8 percent, meaning the workers took a pay cut over that period of over nine percent. They are owed a big catch-up.

Section 33 continues to prove controversial. Some suggest that, given its ability to deprive citizens of basic civil rights and its potential for misuse, it should be abandoned. It clearly should at least be used only in the most unusual and extenuating circumstances.

So why was it included in the first place? Primarily because when the Charter was being created many Canadians, including several premiers, were concerned that it would change the provincial/federal balance of power and place too much power in the hands of courts. Who was to have the last word?

The answer, via Section 33, was the people, or more specifically their legislatures. In a democracy, I believe this is appropriate.

If Section 33 is misused by arrogant politicians, the people must noisily protest abuse of their constitution. This is what has happened in this case. Support for the education workers and outrage at the Ontario government’s offence against human rights has poured in. Parents, opposition politicians, and the labour movement across the country have protested. Private sector unions are standing with public sector unions. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation pledged $1-million in support and others were following suit. Surveys showed that Ontarians overwhelmingly blamed the government for the Friday school closures.

All of this sent a powerful message. And of course the people can always fire an offending government at the next election.

It seems that on this occasion at least, Doug Ford heard the people.

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