As part of his New Year’s list, Doug Ford appointed former premier Mike Harris to the Order of Ontario. Workers are justifiably angry that Harris—remembered primarily for his vicious austerity program—is receiving the highest official honour in the province. While Harris is hardly the first reactionary politician to receive the designation, his appointment was a slap in the face to the millions of workers who suffered under his seven-year rule.
Harris was elected in 1995 riding a wave of discontent with Bob Rae’s NDP. He wasted no time implementing his “Common Sense Revolution”, a far-reaching austerity program that cut public spending by $1.9 billion. Half of those cuts came from social assistance, placing the burden on the poorest Ontarians to pay for the crisis of capitalism. He justified his cuts by demonizing his victims, portraying them as do-nothings and cheats. He divided welfare recipients into those he considered the “deserving” versus the “undeserving” poor. Along this logic, he implemented “workfare”, a program that required welfare recipients to work in slave-like conditions 17 hours per week for below minimum wage. In an extreme out-of-touch move, his government told poor people to go on a “welfare diet” of $90 per month, essentially telling them to starve.
As one of his first acts as premier, Harris sent the Ontario Provincial Police to stop the Stoney Point Indian Band—now known as the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation—from reclaiming Ipperwash Provincial Park, land stolen from them during the Second World War. He told his officers, “I want the fucking Indians out of the park.” The next day, Sgt. Kenneth Deane fatally shot Dudley George, an Indigenous protester who was carrying only a stick. The murder sent shockwaves across Canada and holds a distinct place in the memory of Indigenous communities, though it is not usually taught in Canadian schools.
The Ipperwash Crisis set the stage for further attacks against workers and the oppressed. Harris gutted labour rights, including abolishing card check certification and anti-scab protections. He downloaded $3 billion in costs to municipalities, where running a deficit is illegal. He privatized Highway 407 and Ontario Hydro. He cancelled infrastructure projects including Toronto’s Eglinton West subway. His privatization of water testing led to an outbreak of E. coli in Walkerton, leading to six deaths, 27 serious hospitalizations, and more than 2,000 sick. He shut down hospitals and laid off nurses. This is the type of politician Doug Ford wants to honour in the midst of a pandemic.
While making the poorest Ontarians poorer, Harris made the richest Ontarians even richer, including himself. As premier, he expanded the privatization of long-term care facilities. Today, he sits as chair of the Chartwell Retirement Residences board of directors, one of the poorest-run and most COVID-ridden long-term care providers in Ontario. A study from May showed that rates of death from COVID-19 are twice as high in for-profit care homes than in publicly owned homes. Harris helped orchestrate this social murder and is now profiting from it. Instead of investing in personal protective equipment, the Chartwell board paid themselves dividends on five occasions in 2020. It’s hard to imagine a more heartless and self-serving ruling class.
Ontario workers were never going to take Harris’s attacks lying down. His cuts inspired the Metro Days of Action, a series of rotating strikes where hundreds of thousands of workers took to the street in protest. Even with temperatures as low as -40 C, the marches continued with the slogan, “It’s not as cold as Harris!” Today, Doug Ford is carrying out a similar austerity program in the midst of a pandemic. His nomination of Mike Harris to the Order of Ontario is a fitting symbol of his continuity with one of the most hated governments in Ontario history. With the fighting spirit of the Metro Days of Action and correct revolutionary leadership, the Ontario working class will sweep these parasites into the dustbin of history.