Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, urged the province's MPPs to 'protect the democracy that we hold dear.'Alex Lupul/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor urged the province’s MPPs to protect democracy, addressing the legislature as it rose for the holidays just minutes after the government passed a bill giving the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa stronger powers, which critics call “minority rule.”

Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, whose role as the King’s representative at the Ontario Legislature is non-partisan, made brief remarks as she ceremonially granted royal assent to several bills on the assembly’s last sitting day of the year. Among them was Bill 39, which the legislature passed Thursday and which grants “strong mayor” powers to Ontario’s two largest cities, where the mayors now have the ability to pass certain bylaws with just a third of their councils’ votes.

In a short speech that touched on the pandemic, climate change and the war in Ukraine, Ms. Dowdeswell remarked that democracy was fragile both abroad and here at home.

“As you head home to the embrace and warmth of your family and friends, particularly at this time of year, I hope that you will be able to spare some moments for reflection about the very special privilege that each of us has to protect the democracy that we hold dear,” the Lieutenant-Governor said. “I hope you come back with renewed energy to do that.”

It’s a theme she has touched on before, including in remarks at the swearing-in ceremony for the cabinet of Premier Doug Ford in June, after his Progressive Conservatives had been re-elected.

But her remarks on Thursday followed a series of moves that have prompted the government’s critics to accuse it of undermining democracy.

Ford defends sweeping housing changes, giving more power to mayors

Its “strong mayors” bill, never mentioned during the recent election campaign, has faced condemnation from city councillors and all of Toronto’s former mayors who are still living, as an affront to democracy.

Mr. Ford’s government has also been accused of failing to consult municipalities and First Nations before making changes to the fees that developers must pay for new infrastructure. And opposition politicians and environmentalists have called for investigations into Ontario’s move to allow development on parts of the protected Greenbelt owned by developers who are also large PC donors.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association called the government’s use last month of the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to strip education workers of their Charter-protected right to strike “dangerous to our constitutional democracy.” (Mr. Ford backed down in that case, withdrawing the legislation and later signing a deal with the union.)

Mr. Ford, the only Ontario premier to use the override clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, has called it a “tool” and has not ruled out using it again.

PC House Leader Paul Calandra dismissed the notion that the Lieutenant-Governor’s remarks were a rebuke aimed at his government.

“I think she certainly reflected on the challenges that we’re seeing globally, whether it’s the war in Ukraine or some of the other challenges that we’re facing,” Mr. Calandra said. “I think all members really took it to heart. We’ve seen, whether it’s municipally or provincially and in the last federal election, challenges with respect to voter turnout. So it’s work that we all have to do.”

Interim NDP Leader Peter Tabuns said he believed the Lieutenant-Governor was sending a message to the government and that he had could not recall remarks from someone in her post like this in the past. But he also said he believed defending democracy did not overstep the apolitical bounds of her role, as all Ontarians agree on democracy.

“I think it was a very timely commentary on what’s going on in Ontario. All over the world, democracy is threatened. Having the Lieutenant-Governor remind us all that it needs to be protected, that it’s precious, I think was very important,” he said.

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said democracy and the environment have always been important to the Lieutenant-Governor, who, he noted, has made similar remarks before. But he said the government wasn’t listening, given the strong mayors bill passed on Thursday.

“That message was very clear. It was for all of us in the chamber. And I know that I heard it,” Mr. Fraser told reporters. “I am not sure the government got the message. Because it’s not the first time the message has been delivered.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe