Toronto's Days of Protest

Like many other Torontonians last Friday, Mayor Barbara Hall just wanted to go to work. But when she showed up at the front entrance to City Hall around 8 a.m.

Toronto's Days of Protest

Like many other Torontonians last Friday, Mayor Barbara Hall just wanted to go to work. But when she showed up at the front entrance to City Hall around 8 a.m., she found herself confronted by several dozen placard-waving protesters - just one small contingent among the thousands of unionists and social activists who had taken to the streets in a bid to shut down Canada's largest city for a day. An aide pleaded with the demonstrators to let the mayor - a left-leaning politician who had endorsed the aims of the protesters - enter the building. His words were echoed by Sid Ryan, a prominent Ontario labor leader. But the demonstrators were adamant: the mayor would have to wait - until 9 a.m. With a polite shrug, Hall strolled across the civic square, the media in tow, to a nearby coffee kiosk. Returning at the appointed hour, she was allowed in without further delay. "We just felt that the mayor, like a lot of other people, should have a disrupted workday," explained John Murphy, president of the Power Workers Union. "So we let her have an extended coffee break."

It was that kind of day as picketers targeted 300 sites across greater Toronto to express their outrage over the deficit-slashing policies of Premier Mike HARRIS's Conservative government. Determined to make their case, they were also keenly aware that their stated goal - to paralyze the city - was resented by most Torontonians. So, while they effectively shut down a public transit system that normally services 1.3-million people, and barred thousands of government and private sector employees from their offices, organizers took pains to protest in an orderly and peaceful - in short, a Canadian - manner. The result was far milder than many had feared. Flights ran normally at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. The widely expected gridlock on highways and downtown streets failed to materialize; in fact, so many workers decided to either take the day off or camp overnight in hotels and offices that a holiday atmosphere pervaded much of the city centre - a mood enhanced by the sunny skies and unseasonably warm temperatures.

"We're passively revolting," said Seth Goering, 20, one of a group of five self-styled "friends with a sincere dislike of Mike Harris" sitting on the lawn of the provincial legislature. Because of the transit shutdown, they had to hitchhike downtown and missed many of the demonstrations. They joked about hoping to see more people, more action. "We wanted chaos," said a smiling Liz Farge, also 20.

Even when the protests proved more boisterous, they did little to dispel Canadians' reputation for civility. About two-dozen riot police watched from the sidelines as a noisy noon-hour rally at the Toronto Stock Exchange drew hundreds of demonstrators, a handful of whom banged on the glass-plated doors. And while the blocked-off streets created a brief traffic jam, it failed to faze motorists like Edward Reisman, who was lost and looking for his hotel. A bakery owner from New Jersey who was in town for a trade show, Reisman said the protest had not tarnished his view of the city. "It's a friendly, peaceful demonstration and I can sympathize with them a little," he said. "It hasn't inconvenienced me a bit - and I still like Toronto and Canadians."

The mood of relative restraint continued into Saturday, as protesters marched through downtown to the provincial legislature at Queen's Park. Along the way, the marchers passed the Metro Convention Centre, where Harris and 2,000 other delegates were engaged in a Tory policy convention. Dozens of riot police stood ready, but were never pressed into service. Inside, most delegates were lunching on cannelloni and mixed vegetables, and appeared as unmoved by the protest as the premier himself, who a day earlier had told reporters that he would not shift course. "I don't expect that most of the public wants us to change from our agenda," Harris had said.

Tory intransigence was a recurring theme at the Queen's Park rally, where, according to police estimates, 75,000 people listened to folksongs and leftist speechifying. Bruce COCKBURN told the crowd that he viewed Harris's cutbacks as "part of somebody's global agenda," and drew loud applause as he launched into a song that urged people to "kick against the darkness until it bleeds daylight." CANADIAN LABOUR CONGRESS president Bob WHITE said that, of all the Ontario governments he had dealt with over the years, none had been as "mean-spirited" and "divisive" as Harris's. Vowing to hold more marches and protests, White declared: "Until we get justice, there will be no peace."

That massive display of public indignation capped what has been a turbulent 16 months in Ontario politics. Since being elected in June, 1995, the Harris Tories have implemented their so-called Common Sense Revolution with a zeal that has surprised even many true believers. In a bid to slice $8 billion from the provincial operating budget while at the same time offering a 30-per-cent income tax cut over three years, the government has attacked on several sensitive fronts. Among other things, it has axed 10,600 civil service jobs, pared welfare payments by one-fifth while instituting a workfare program for recipients, and taken steps that will force the closure of dozens of hospitals and may eliminate the majority of school boards.

All of which is not business-as-usual in a province where, as former premier Bill Davis used to boast, "bland works." Historian Desmond Morton notes that mass protests are nothing new to provinces like British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec, where politics have traditionally been more polarized. "But in Ontario," says Morton, "the province has been governed, at least since the Second World War, from the middle, mainly by a conservative party that was also progressive, and that had a tent big enough to at least have a stool over in the corner for the labor movement. That's not the state of affairs today."

Morton adds that "the pretty sheltered life" that Ontarians have enjoyed until recently may help explain why individuals and organizations appeared so alarmed in the days leading up to the Toronto protest. Downtown hospitals cancelled some surgical operations and sent patients home early - even though labor leaders had promised that they would not be picketed. Hundreds of health-care workers slept in empty ward beds to make sure they got to work on Friday, and similar precautions were taken by several city banks and The Toronto Star, which purchased 600 sleeping bags for its overnighting staffers. People who had to commute into Toronto gave themselves plenty of leeway - only to arrive in record time. Cheryl Wood, 19, of Peterborough, and Chris Foster, 20, of Trenton, each drove two hours in the middle of the night, arriving at Pearson Airport at 5:30 a.m. on Friday for a 3 p.m. flight to Australia. Wood had fretted for days about the journey. "I had a few nervous breakdowns," she said. "Everybody was saying, 'You're not going to make it.'"

The anxiety - and the anger - over the days of protest was also reflected in a poll of 400 Torontonians conducted early last week by the Angus Reid Group. It showed that while nearly half of respondents believed the protesters were well-intentioned and had legitimate concerns, fully 67 per cent opposed their plan to shut down the city. That impatience was sometimes evident on the streets on Friday. "They're all a bunch of nuts," declared Marjorie Stephenson, glaring from her car at picketers who impeded her progress in downtown Toronto. "What do they want? I tell them to go to Russia if they want to be communists."

While they appeared to be waging an uphill battle for public support last week, it was one that, in the long run, many labor leaders predicted they would win. "I don't think you can turn around public opinion in a 24-hour period," said Ryan, president of the Ontario division of the CANADIAN UNION OF PUBLIC EMPLOYEES. "But when these cutbacks really take effect, that's when Harris will drop like a rock in the polls. In a year's time, I think people will look back and say, 'We now know what those demonstrations were about.' " Angus Reid senior vice-president John Wright believes Ryan may have a point. While the Tories retain a comfortable 44-per-cent support in recent polls, Wright says a growing number of residents seem concerned about how the government's actions may affect them. "Right now, a lot of these things are announced cuts, not effective ones," says Wright. "We may be in for a tumultuous 18 months." If so, Ontarians might find themselves yearning for an era when blandness worked.

Maclean's November 4, 1996