Social Movements Crucial Factor in Ontario Election

Article excerpt


Ontario Liberal Premier David Peterson knew his troubles had begun the moment he announced the election. The Queen's Park media room was packed. The Sept. 6 date was set. Gord Perks of Greenpeace walked up to the premier and placed a briefcase on the table in front of him. The case concealed a tape recorded message which began listing the government's broken promises on the environment.

"Looks like it will be an interesting election," remarked Peterson. He'd use the same line six weeks later when he conceded defeat to Bob Rae of the NDP.

The Liberals plummeted from 90 seats to 34. Eight cabinet ministers plus the premier were ousted. The Progressive Conservatives picked up two seats for a total of 21. The New Democratic Party made history with 74 seats and a comfortable majority.

But while election night pundits tried to pass off the NDP victory as a fluke, or at best, an electorate become cynical, activists in the social movements disagree.

"If half of the vote was a rejection of the Liberals," says Toronto communtiy worker David Kidd, "there was still a solid core that voted for the(NDP) program."

"We're the ones who turned the tide," he claims. "There was amazing coalition work. The best I've ever seen."

His isn't an overstatement. The health sector, teachers, unions, environmentalists, women, child care, employment equity, housing, antiracist activists, public sector workers and labour councils entered the election campaign in an unprecedented way.

One didn't have to be on the inside to feel their presence. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation had billboards. White type on a solid black background gave the ominous message: "Spending too little on public schools is child neglect." This was backed up with ads running in newspapers across the province.

The Ontario Public Service Union, representing government workers, stepped up its campaign to stop the privatization of public services with a 'tent city' of 400 on the lawn of Queen's Park.

On the eve of the vote, 30 thousand trade unionists, members of the Metro Toronto Labour Council, marched through downtown in a demonstration condemning the Liberal record and supporting the NDP alternative.

But if anything made the difference it was determination of social advocates who dogged the premier at every turn on the election trail.

John Clarke, head of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, appeared at Peterson's London nominating meeting to pin the government down on its commitment to poverty relief.

His very presence was enough to cause Peterson to react. He barked at Clarke to "grow up and find a job."

The gloves were off and Clarke's description of Peterson as "the poverty premier" stuck.

Peterson in turn tried to marginalize protesters, brushing them off as "cranky" during the one televised leaders' debate of the campaign. In the dying days before the vote, Liberal statements became tinged with hysteria as the polls showed the work of the social movements was swinging voter support towards the New Democrats.

But Clarke resents accusations that advocates distorted the election outcome. "Our protests would not have been successful if they hadn't coincided with a whole load of discontent out there."

Michael Shapcott of Basic Poverty Action in Toronto agrees. "This election was a real vindication of social activists who have been trying for years to draw attention to issues of poverty, oppression, environmental devastation and inequality. There was this credibility gap between what governments said and what was reality. In this campaign it was the social activists who were able to drive this message home."

In the euphoria of an historic win, the social movements are pleased with the prospects of working with a new government they anticipate will be sympathetic to their goals. …