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Mike Harris does not deserve the Order of Ontario

Canadian Politics

On the first day of 2021, the Province of Ontario quietly used the holiday season to appoint former premier Mike Harris to the Order of Ontario. This is a feeble attempt to cast Harris as a benevolent Ontarian, whitewash his disastrous neoliberal policies, and sweep under the rug his role as Chair of the Board for Chartwell Retirement Residences—one of the most poorly managed for-profit long-term care corporations in Canada.

When Harris was elected in 1995 after the NDP collapsed in Ontario, he introduced a draconian period of economic austerity, slashing taxes and reducing the role of government across the board. This was a governing strategy Harris would relish in, and one that he had been planning for years as he led the Progressive Conservatives in the Ontario legislature.

The strategy culminated in the “Common Sense Revolution,” a policy platform predicated on advancing a hard right form of neoliberalism bearing much similarity to the ideology of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Harris’s ‘revolution’ had a foundation in drastically re-orienting the role of the state in society and manufacturing new social villains out of those living in poverty, blaming them for economic issues in the province and the country more broadly. The goal of this was simple: to reduce the role of the state in areas of social provisioning, to demonize those requiring assistance, and to rollback any semblance of democratic oversight in the name of privatization and profit-making.

According to its website, the Order of Ontario is awarded to “An Ontarian who has shown outstanding qualities of individual excellence and achievement in any field” and whose “excellence has left a lasting legacy on the province.” While Harris has no doubt exhibited excellence in the eyes of Chartwell shareholders, his lasting legacy is one of cruelty towards the most vulnerable in society, and policies that unquestionably resulted in the premature deaths of thousands of people—otherwise known as social murder.

During his time as premier, Harris instituted a 21.6 percent cut to social assistance rates; downloaded the costs of social housing to municipalities and cancelled 17,000 units under development; offloaded $6.5 billion in social costs to municipalities while knowing it was illegal for them to run deficits (triggering further cuts to public services); cut shelter allowances to those on assistance; removed rent control and tenant protection laws; attacked worker’s rights and compensation standards as well as health and safety protections; and implemented the Safe Streets Act to demonize and criminalize people living in poverty and persons experiencing homelessness who were merely trying to survive in public spaces.

Harris’s disdain for the working class and those living in poverty was no more obvious in his implementation of the $90-a-month “Welfare Diet,” a patronizing policy delivered by wealthy politicians who claimed families living in poverty could feed themselves on $3 per day. While serving as Minister of Community and Social Services, David Tsubouchi made a list of items including discounted dented cans of tuna. Lacking essential staples like butter, margarine, and salt, it was quickly ridiculed as out of touch with reality. Writer Stephen Hume argued that it would be a “war crime under the Geneva Convention to feed such food to captured prisoners.”

Indeed, the humiliation of the starving poor is Harris’s real legacy.

The story of Kimberly Rogers is illustrative of the lengths the Harris government went to attack poor Ontarians. Rogers was an honours student who received welfare payments and student loans simultaneously while undertaking her studies. Receiving both forms of assistance was legal when she first started her education, but the practice was banned as part of the Harris government’s welfare reform legislation in 1996. Rogers was never informed of the change by either agency that distributed the funds, and she was ultimately back charged $13,000. Still on welfare, funds were deducted every month, leaving her with just $18 after paying her rent. She was charged with welfare fraud and convicted while pregnant, sentenced to six months of house arrest and a suspension of her social assistance. This was eventually overruled by constitutional challenge, with the presiding judge stating that “for a member of our community carrying an unborn child to be homeless and deprived of basic sustenance is a situation that would adversely affect the public—its dignity, its human rights commitments and its health care resources.”

But it was too late: Rogers’ drug benefits had been suspended during this time and she could not afford necessary medications for her mental health and pregnancy. During a record-breaking heat wave, and amidst her pregnancy and mental health issues, Rogers took her own life in 2001. Even after this and the multiple resulting inquiries and reviews, Harris’s successor Ernie Eves (along with Social Services Minister Brenda Elliott) stated that the policies and institutions “worked effectively” and implemented none of the suggested policy changes.

Kimberly Rogers is Harris’s legacy.

Kimberly Rogers, forced to subsist on $18 a month after expenses. An inquest found she died by suicide. Photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star.

The premier’s vulgar attempts to privatize and cut government facilities notably culminated in the Walkerton Scandal, an E. coli outbreak in the water supply that killed seven and sickened over 2,300 people in 2000. Closures of government services for municipalities forced Walkerton to utilize a private (for-profit) lab for water testing. The private lab, clearly in an attempt to protect itself, did not report the contamination issue when first detected (as a government facility would have legally been required to do immediately). Due to Harris’s cuts, government inspections had been reduced by 34 percent and hundreds of government staff positions were eliminated.

The Walkerton victims are Harris’s legacy.

The question then is why did Doug Ford and his government appoint Harris to the Order of Ontario? There are two reasons. First, they are attempting to whitewash his history of serving the rich and attacking the poor. By rewarding Harris and praising him for his time in power, the Ford government is implicitly pushing aside the reality of his legacy in support of the vague ideological notions of small government and lower taxes. In his book, Ford Nation: Two Brothers, One Vision, the premier praises Harris for “Balancing the budget, reducing taxes, reducing the overall size of the government, and cutting back on handouts” and “provincial welfare rates and overstaffed government ministries.”

In the same book, Ford claims Harris is one of his heroes and that he “followed his example” in his political career. This is the second reason for Harris being rewarded the Order of Ontario, namely that Ford himself is reproducing similar policies to that of Harris, meaning there is some form of self-serving patronage tied to this appointment. Ford has gone out of his way over the last few years to both boost and insulate Harris from criticism and accountability, especially with respect to the former premier’s role as Chairman of the Board for Chartwell Retirement Residences, a for-profit long-term care home. Ford passed Bill 218, effectively removing legal accountability for long-term care companies during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, even if they have acted with clear negligence and contributed to deaths in their facilities. He has actively legislated for the growth of more privatized and for-profit long-term care in Ontario.

In the last 14 years, Harris has helped grow Chartwell into one of the largest and most valuable for-profit long-term care companies in Canada, furthering his project of privatization of social provisioning and the neglect of substantive social spending in the name of profit-making for shareholders and executives. While paying employees minimum wage and undercutting quality of care, Chartwell is part of the three largest for-profit nursing home operators in Ontario that have paid out more than $1.5 billion in dividends to shareholders in the last decade alone.

Meanwhile, during the pandemic, for-profit care homes have had a deplorable track record (compared to government-run facilities) when it comes to COVID-related deaths of seniors, all while providing incredibly low spending-to-patient ratios as they pocket profits. As thousands in these homes died gasping for their last breaths, Chartwell was busy publishing posts characterizing criticism of for-profit homes as “political posturing of individuals and groups pursuing their own agenda.”

Of course, Harris’s project of enrichment on the backs of the vulnerable continues. Social murder does not have an expiration date.

Ford needs to protect Harris and his legacy to shore up his own image and political career, and to reproduce the conditions necessary for neoliberalism to continue as it faces an historic crisis during the pandemic. One of the main features of neoliberalism is to use democratic institutions to insulate private sector actors from criticism, an argument that has been published elsewhere in these pages.

By whitewashing and mainstreaming Harris’s record and ideology, Ford is attempting to insulate neoliberal ideas from critique and resistance, normalizing and justifying the former premier’s disdain for single mothers, Indigenous peoples, the working poor, those living with disabilities, and persons experiencing homelessness. Ford has made a career out of manufacturing many of the same social villains under the dubious guise of populism.

If anyone deserves the Order of Ontario, it is the victims of Harris’s ‘Common Sense Revolution’ and his legacy of neoliberal violence that is still very much with us today.

Ryan Kelpin is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at York University. His area of research pertains to Toronto and Ontario politics, neoliberalization, and de-democratization.

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