Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservative government made good on their pledge to set a new, less-confrontational tone as the Legislature returned from a five-month break, as the Ontario Premier also made a plea for national unity.
It was Mr. Ford’s first Question Period after a 144-day hiatus, a break that coincided with the federal election campaign in which the Premier avoided both reporters and public events after a series of scandals and spending cuts diminished his popularity. It was the longest pause for an Ontario government in nearly 25 years.
On Monday, Mr. Ford and his ministers kept their cool as the NDP asked repeatedly about the government’s plans to increase high-school class sizes amid tense talks with teachers’ unions. Mr. Ford did not directly address the issue, responding instead by citing other new education spending the government has announced, including funding for student mental health.
Outside, a union-sponsored protest parade marched around Queen’s Park, led by a massive effigy of the Premier, who has decried teacher union leaders as “thugs” in the past.
There was no such rhetoric on Monday. And the government side – singled out for its repeated standing ovations in a summer memo from the Speaker – only rose to its feet once, to applaud a statement from Mr. Ford on the need for national unity.
Responding to a friendly question from a PC MPP, the Premier cited a recent phone call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in which he pledged to put politics aside and work with the newly re-elected federal government. Mr. Ford said the federal election had left the country divided – and that Ontario needed to play a role in bringing it together.
“That is why, at this critical time, I think it’s important for Ontario to step up. Step up, unite the country. I’ve never seen the country so divided,” Mr. Ford said.
Referring to a visit Sunday from New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, and phone calls with Quebec Premier François Legault, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Mr. Ford said the leaders all agree Canada needs to remain united.
“We all feel the same way,” the Premier said. “We need to unite this country.”
Just days ago, Mr. Kenney and Mr. Moe warned that the federal election result, which left both of their provinces with no representation in the Liberal government in Ottawa, was feeding Western alienation. Mr. Kenney said Albertans felt “betrayed” after a campaign that featured what he called attacks on his province’s oil sector.
At Queen’s Park, Mr. Ford offered nothing specific on how he would bridge the divide in the country. A spokeswoman for his office also declined to elaborate.
Despite the new tone, the Ontario Premier was not following the New Brunswick Premier’s lead and giving up the fight over Mr. Trudeau’s carbon tax. Both Mr. Ford and Ontario Energy Minister Greg Rickford said their fight would continue. Mr. Rickford also told reporters the government’s mandatory anti-carbon tax stickers for gas pumps would stay.
Speaking outside the chamber, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government needs to change its policies, not just its tone.
“They can calm their behaviour at Question Period, but is that going to make a hill of beans of difference with kids who need supports in the classrooms that are being cut because of government decisions?”
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