Op-ed: Mike Harris’s Order of Ontario is a disgrace
Harris’s harmful legacy is not limited to his attacks on the poor – his tenure racialized politics and brought dishonour to the office of the premier
Mike Harris is the reason I’m in politics.
When my kids were in elementary school, I joined a parents group to fight Mike Harris’s cuts to education.
Back then, the goal was to “create a crisis” with the ultimate aim of privatizing Ontario’s education system.
He doubled most college and university tuition fees and deregulated professional fees. That made Ontario’s students the most indebted in the country, and priced low- and middle-income students out of law, medicine and other professional programs.
Now the Doug Ford government wants to bestow the Order of Ontario – “the province’s highest honour” – on Harris. There are many reasons Harris should not receive the award.
Harris’s harmful legacy is not limited to his attacks on education. His tenure brought disgrace to the office of the premier.
Soon after he took office he gave instructions that he wanted “the fucking Indians out of the park” hours before Ontario Provincial Police moved in and shot Dudley George during an occupation of Ipperwash Provincial Park. At the public inquiry that followed years later, he lied repeatedly about his role in the affair.
His “Common Sense Revolution” racialized politics and unleashed a wave of human suffering.
He cut welfare rates by 22 per cent to $520 a month. His minister at the time, David Tsubouchi, argued that people could live on it by adopting a “welfare diet” consisting in large part of pasta with no sauce, butter or salt.
He stopped building affordable housing and downloaded responsibility to municipalities – planting the seeds of a housing crisis that led to a tent city epidemic in Ontario that continues to this day.
Harris sold Highway 407 for $3.1 billion (now worth $30 billion) and committed Ontarians to paying tolls for 100 years.
He broke up and started selling off pieces of Ontario Hydro, making rates unaffordable for many, and turning electricity costs from a competitive advantage to a liability for Ontario businesses.
At a cost of $40 million, he filled in the Eglinton subway tunnel, the start of other Conservative transit cancellations and gridlock that now costs the Toronto region $6 billion a year.
The damage brought on by his “revolution” continued after he left office.
As chair of the Board of Directors of Chartwell Homes, an “open-ended real estate trust” with supportive living and long-term care homes in four provinces, he’s dedicated himself to converting long-tem care into a private, for-profit industry. At Chartwell, Harris makes an annual salary of $230,000 and owns $7 million in Chartwell holdings.
While Harris and corporations profit, seniors and the personal support workers who care for them suffer. A 2014 Ministry of Health report described how a resident senior in a Chartwell home died in agony with bedsores so deep that “they exposed her shinbone through blackened flesh.”
During the pandemic, the Canadian Armed Forces have reported on the horrific conditions in for-profit homes, where residents are more than twice as likely to contract and die from COVID-19 than those in municipally run facilities. As of January 4, 2,843 seniors and eight staff in long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19.
In 2018, 200 families – including Francis Yorke, who reported that her mother was in diapers, constantly wet and that she had found a cockroach in her mother’s bed – launched a lawsuit against LTC home chains.
Instead of hiring more PSWs and reinstating minimum standards of care, the response of the Ford government has been to protect profiteers by passing Bill 218, which makes it significantly harder for families to sue homes for negligence.
That Ford wants to reward Harris is a slap in the face to the memory of the seniors and others who have suffered and died from a legacy established by Harris while he was premier – and that he has profited from ever since.
Chris Glover is NDP MPP for Spadina-Fort York.