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Mike Harris waves to supporters in Orillia, June 2, 1999.

Shaun Best/REUTERS

Indigenous leaders, social activists and MPPs have condemned the decision to grant Mike Harris the Order of Ontario. They are wrong. The former Progressive Conservative premier deserves the award.

Former premiers Dalton McGuinty, Bob Rae, David Peterson and Bill Davis are all members of the order, as was the late Frank Miller. To deny the award to Mike Harris and his successor, Ernie Eves, who is also receiving it, would be perverse.

But Mr. Harris’s critics do not see him as simply another Ontario premier. In the 1990s they considered him destructive, dangerous, beyond contempt, and many believe that today. This attitude deepens social divisions and invites a populist backlash. And it prevents a fair-minded assessment of the Harris government’s legacy.

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In 1995, the Progressive Conservatives inherited a province mired in deficit and sluggish growth. The Tories responded with what they called the Common Sense Revolution, cutting both taxes and spending, eliminated the deficit and paid down debt.

They amalgamated municipalities and slashed the number of school boards, while implementing major curriculum reforms. They reined in the public service and teachers unions, rationalized health care, reduced welfare entitlements, phased out rent controls and privatized government services.

But they did far more than simply slash and burn. Once the province’s finances were restored, the Harris Progressive Conservatives invested in postsecondary education, in land conservation and in clean energy. They, not Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals, began shutting down the province’s coal-fired generating stations.

They also made serious mistakes. Indigenous leaders opposed to granting Mr. Harris the Order of Ontario cite his government’s mishandling of the confrontation between police and native protesters at Ipperwash provincial park in 1995. Mr. Harris denied ordering police to remove First Nations protesters from the park. But whether he did or didn’t, Dudley George was killed in the confrontation that followed and the Harris government bears a share of the responsibility for that death.

The harshest and most deserved criticism of Mike Harris’s tenure centres on the 2000 crisis in Walkerton, where an incompetent manager allowed the town’s water supply to become contaminated, killing seven people.

“Make no mistake: The Mike Harris government’s environmental policies contributed to the deaths in Walkerton,” I wrote at the time, because it slashed regulations without sufficient thought for the consequences. A public inquiry reached a similar conclusion.

But for this writer, the successful reforms and restructuring that marked the Harris government at its best outweigh the failures.

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Others who would deny Mr. Harris the order cite his current position as board chairman of a company that owns nursing homes, where many of the COVID-19 deaths occurred. While we can debate the future role of the private sector in long-term care, such companies are legal and legitimate, and there is no reason to deprive Mr. Harris of the award simply because he is associated with one.

At the root of these protests lies the belief many progressives hold that conservative governments are illegitimate. “Mike Harris destroyed everything he touched!” asserts a petition that aims to prevent Mr. Harris from receiving the award. By Tuesday afternoon, it had garnered more than 37,000 signatures.

Back in the nineties, progressives derided Mr. Harris as a “golf pro from North Bay,” someone who was Not Like Us. Mike Harris offended them, just as former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper offended them and Premier Doug Ford offends them today.

What really offends them, though they might not recognize it, are disobedient suburban voters. While these voters often make common cause with progressives in city centres, they sometimes rebel, coalescing instead with rural and small-town voters. They do this when they believe progressives have gotten too carried away with social justice schemes and bike lanes. They look to conservatives to restore balance.

In the 1990s, they looked to Mike Harris. Their verdict on the endless protests and marches and shutdowns he faced, on a provincewide strike by public servants and another by teachers, was to give Mr. Harris a second majority government.

When the Tories finally ran out of steam, suburban voters in 2003 turned to Dalton McGuinty’s and then Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, and then back to Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in 2018. That’s how the system is supposed to work.

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Mike Harris governed well and with good intent. Those who demonize him diminish only themselves.

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