Like most Ontarians I remember the Mike Harris era fondly, as a time of progress and harmony, when the groundwork for great things to come was laid by a visionary premier and his capable cohorts.
If one defers the reckoning on the current Doug Ford Conservative government until it’s in the rear view mirror, the Harris terms were easily the most divisive and rancorous in provincial politics in the past 40 years (beyond that, neither memory nor Google serve well and who has time for history books?).
To touch on just the most striking controversies of the era (Harris was premier from 1995 to 2002), “Iron Mike,” as some called him, governed through the Ipperwash Park dispute, which resulted in the shooting of native protestor Dudley George, and the Walkerton Water Crisis, when E.coli in the town’s drinking water claimed seven lives and sickened thousands.
The Ipperwash debacle is often ascribed to an OPP response triggered by a terse Harris directive to swiftly remove Indigenous people from the park. The Walkerton tragedy has been at least partially attributed to the province’s decision to privatize water testing as part of a cost-cutting frenzy.
And those are just the issues that led to full-blown provincial inquiries. The aforementioned cost cutting prescribed by “Mike the Knife,” as he was also known, reduced many communities, particularly in rural areas, to fighting to keep their hospitals open and their children’s classrooms at least reasonably staffed and supplied.
Under Harris, the government waged fiscal war on nurses, laying off thousands and famously declaring them “obsolete,” and also on teachers, with proposed changes and cost cutting leading to a two-week province-wide strike by educators.
Likewise tensions between the government and anti-poverty activists (not normally a terribly militant faction in these parts) led to a series of protests and strikes, the most infamous of which occurred in 2000 at Queen’s Park and turned into a clash between police and protesters, resulting in dozens of injuries and charges.
Efforts to find balancing positive accomplishments from Harris’ time in office prove challenging.
A push for amalgamation, which saw the number of Ontario municipalities reduced from 850 to the present 444, is cited in some circles as a success. However, the process involved several years of bitter wrangling between communities and in 2015 the Fraser Institute, a think tank Harris himself joined as a senior fellow in 2002, declared “there was no tangible, financial benefit” from the exercise.
Harris’ Common Sense Revolution platform promised savings and his government did produce a balanced budget in 1999. However, the Tories cut taxes along with spending and the loss of tax revenue has been blamed for a significant increase in debt, up to 30 per cent, by the time the PC government left power. Sale of the lucrative 407 toll highway to pay off a chunk of debt is now widely lamented as a lost revenue opportunity.
The reason for all this reminiscing is obviously not nostalgia for those halcyon days, but rather the announcement this past weekend that Harris will be named to the prestigious Order of Ontario.
In all, 47 new recipients were called to the order, but so far it appears only Harris’ inclusion has generated an online petition (“Stop Mike Harris receiving the Order of Ontario”), which had garnered over 30,000 signatories as of this writing.
Harris’ legacy isn’t all ancient history. It also includes a reduced public role in long-term care, relaxing of regulations and lessening of public oversight. Opening the doors to more privatization in the sector is today being heavily scrutinized as Ontarians see many for-profit long-term care homes experiencing more cases and deaths than comparable public sector operations though the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
That Harris is today on the board of directors of Chartwell, the largest operator in the Canadian seniors living sector, has also drawn attention of late, as the debate over the relative merits of private versus public long-term care heats up.
The latest additions to the Order of Ontario include another former premier, Ernie Eves, who was finance minister in the Harris regime, and the club is not short of past occupants of that office. Some have compared it to the proverbial gold watch for anyone reaching said heights, so Harris’ inclusion was to be expected at some point.
Just not sure this was the year for it.