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Are the Ontario Liberals heading for extinction or rebirth?

News

HAMILTON — The Ontario Liberal Party’s annual general meeting was not typical of a party that holds just eight out of 124 seats in a legislature, nor did it reflect descriptions of the party as teetering on the brink of extinction.

With a reported 1,500 delegates in attendance, joined by several of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet ministers, the Ontario Liberals assembled a surprisingly strong turnout for an early March event at the Hamilton Convention Centre.

The AGM did not answer the party’s most nagging questions though, including, most importantly, what the party stands for in 2023. A lengthy leadership race, with an election date still undecided, will determine who will assemble the party’s next policy platform and take on the Progressive Conservatives in the next election.

With the PCs coasting to majority governments in the previous two elections, some insiders and outsiders have compared this moment for the Ontario Liberals to the existential moment faced by the federal Liberals when Stephen Harper won three consecutive elections from 2006 to 2011.

Likely leadership contender Nathaniel Erskine-Smith hosted a packed event and compared the Ontario party’s situation to the federal Liberal Party’s state after that disastrous 2011 election. 

“We have a Liberal Party in need of serious generational renewal, and we have a lot of energy and we’re going to get there, but we have a very frustrating Conservative majority government,” said Erskine-Smith in a speech to the ballroom’s audience. “Do I think there’s the same mean-spiritedness that we saw under Harper? No, but I see deep, deep incompetence at Queen’s Park, even when they say the right things, they cause absolute chaos.” 

Although accused of being incompetent, the PC government has performed better than the Liberals or the NDP during the last two election campaigns. 

Lloyd Rang, a former speechwriter for former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, said it’s a huge challenge responding to “a post-ideological populist conservative government.”

“You have a Ford government that doesn’t adhere to a lot of the traditional conservative principles,” said Rang. 

Rang said Ford is not like past PC leaders like Mike Harris, who led a government of hardline fiscal conservatives who radically reduced government spending, regulations, and taxes across the board in Ontario. Indeed, Ford’s government did not table a balanced budget until this year, and the PC government remains among those most willing to spend taxpayer dollars in Canada.

Despite an unclear, or absent, philosophical grounding, it did not hurt the PCs during the last provincial election. Ontario Liberal supporters, on the other hand, have said that defining what Liberalism is in 2023 is a priority for the party. 

That starts with a close examination of the failed campaigns against Ford.

One criticism of the party’s disastrous showing in the 2022 provincial election was its inability to stake out any popular policy positions, with then-leader Stephen Del Duca pledging to cancel new highway projects and allow teenagers to attend an extra year of high school.

If any new policy direction was obvious from the convention, it was opposition to the premier’s recent moves on health care. Specifically, controversially expanding private-sector involvement by permitting for-profit clinics to help clear surgery backlogs.

Speakers at the opening night’s podium slammed Ford’s decisions, as did others throughout the convention centre. 

Don Valley East MPP and physician Adil Shamji put up a booth outside the auditorium titled “Patients, Not Profits.” He made it clear that he is fundamentally opposed to private sector involvement in health care and that he is exploring a run to become party leader. 

“We’re going to keep pushing until the message becomes impossible for this government to ignore, that…when it comes to health care, it should be about patient health, not private wealth,” said Shamji. 

Shamji said that if one thing is near and dear to the people of Ontario, it is universal, publicly-funded health care.

“‘Patients, not profits’ sends a very clear message to the entire province that the Liberal Party is here and ready to fight for their health-care system, and to do whatever it takes to take the fight to Doug Ford,” said Shamji. 

The AGM was a nominally bureaucratic affair to elect the Liberal Party’s newest executive council and determine constitutional amendments, most prominently the nearly unanimous decision among delegates to switch the party’s leadership election rules to “one member, one vote.”

However, the most prominent attendees were not executive candidates, but the collection of likely entrants into the party’s leadership race, most notably sitting federal Liberal MPs Erskine-Smith and Yasir Naqvi. Like Shamji, both are officially exploring a run for the leadership, and their presence overshadowed much of the conference. 

Reflecting arguably the sole policy theme to emerge from the AGM, Naqvi accused Doug Ford of breaking Ontario’s health-care system.

“I’m a firm believer in a universally funded health-care system. That is a cornerstone of how we provide important services that give people an opportunity to grow,” says Naqvi. “I can tell you as an immigrant who came to this great country, having a publicly funded health-care system, along with a good education system, was the great equalizer for my family.” 

Premier Ford’s offering of so-called “strong mayor” powers to Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe of Ottawa and now-former Toronto Mayor John Tory, allowing them to pass legislation with only one-third of city councillors voting in favour, was another policy that Liberal leadership candidates critiqued, albeit less forcefully than the health-care file. 

Sutcliffe has stated he will not utilize the strong mayor powers, but Ford’s granting of them to John Tory was understood as a move to help streamline housing developments in Toronto. 

“I know this is directed at housing, but I think at the municipal level, people should be trying to win over voters instead of steamrolling them with the strong mayor powers,” says Liberal MPP Ted Hsu. “I don’t see the need. I think we just need to work harder on building a consensus and building coalitions to get housing built.”

Hsu, the MPP for Kingston and the Islands, is expected to also be exploring a leadership run and hosted a hospitality suite on the 18th floor of the nearby Sheraton Hotel.

Regarding housing, Hsu laid out what he believes both the provincial government and the private sector must do to make housing more affordable in Ontario, currently the second most expensive province in Canada to rent or own a home. 

“The provincial government should be spending money directly on affordable housing…that is affordable when it’s newly built,” says Hsu, who believes federal cooperation is necessary to create housing for people suffering from mental health and addictions. 

Also present was Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, who attended a smaller hospitality suite on Friday with Oakville MP and federal Minister of National Defence Anita Anand in attendance. Throughout the AGM, other members of Trudeau’s federal cabinet made appearances, including Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino and Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra. 

Crombie has been called another potential leadership candidate, despite publicly stating she is “entirely focused” on being the mayor of Mississauga. With strong local backing in the Peel Region that saw her win re-election with nearly 80 percent of the popular vote in October’s municipal elections, Crombie could be in a strong position if she does enter. 

Inside the political battle to ‘depoliticize’ the Law Society of Ontario

News

The fight for control of the Law Society of Ontario fits neatly into the culture war discourse of our times.

It’s woke versus anti-woke. It’s about cancel culture. It’s about fixing bloated institutions versus good governance. Jordan Peterson is, of course, tangentially involved.

The law society’s April elections have burst into mainstream view because they have, once again, revolved around a “statement of principles” about diversity and inclusion.

The statement was introduced in 2018 and would have required lawyers to promote equality, diversity, and inclusion both in their professional and personal lives, but a strong showing by a group of candidates calling themselves the StopSOP coalition“Stop the Statement of Principles” in the 2019 law society election meant the statement was repealed before it could be implemented. This year’s election is a rerun of that 2019 campaign, with the new FullStop slate fearing that anything less than a strong showing by their side will allow the statement to be re-imposed.

The battle for the soul of the law society mirrors the ongoing strife at a variety of institutions that were once proudly non-political. The College of Psychologists of Ontario has engaged in a highly-publicized war with Peterson, one of its members. Culture wars have simmered, and occasionally boiled over, at prestigious media outlets like The New York Times for years. Some tech firms have even banned political discussions at work to stop these clashes from erupting.

The fight over the law society’s statement of principles may be a microcosm of the fractious political clashes happening across our society, but it’s also a battle that raises a fundamental question: is there anywhere left in society that remains free of the culture war?


In response to the surprise StopSOP victory in 2019, an opposition coalition was formed to make sure that kind of surprise doesn’t happen again.

The Good Governance coalition argues that it will bring competence and experience to the law society, while valuing “diversity over division.” The coalition is temperamentally opposed to the idea of running slates of candidates but, with the FullStop pushing enough candidates to possibly get a majority, the stakes were raised high enough to make it happen.

“The Law Society’s responsibilities are too great to risk that happening again,” the coalition argues.

The two groups are vying for 40 spots reserved for lawyers on the law society’s board of governors, which are known as “benchers.” There are also spots on the board for eight members of the public and five paralegals.

The board meets about once a month to iron out matters of policy and form panels that, among other things, make disciplinary decisions about Ontario’s lawyers.

The Good Governance argues that the stakes are literally existential. A victory by the FullStop coalition could put the regulator itself at risk, the group argues.

“Nothing less than our continued ability to self-regulate is at stake,” the group argues in its vision statement. “It has already been lost in Britain and Australia. We cannot let the same happen here.”


Perhaps forgotten in the law society’s fractious election are the lawyers who would prefer not to sign a statement of principles but don’t want to wage an “anti-woke” campaign against it. Or, put another way, the lawyers who just want to be lawyers.

One of the great accomplishments of modern liberal democracy is that we can live in peace while holding different ideas about how to structure our society, said Brian Dijkema, the vice president of external affairs at the Cardus think tank. A big part of that accomplishment is the creation of spaces in our lives that remain free of politics.

“One of the gifts of democracy is that you should not actually have to have a political opinion all the time,” said Dijkema. “The space to not have an opinion is actually something that I’m most worried about in our political culture.”

The question of what amounts to a political opinion, though, is in the eye of the beholder. Both campaigns in the law society election argue that the other side is politicizing the law society.

The FullStop candidates argue that the imposition of the statement of principles was a radical departure from the role of the law society and that it demanded action.

“We are in a political battle to de-politicize the law society,” said Bruce Pardy, the executive director of Rights Probe and professor of law at Queen’s University. “That may sound like a contradiction, but it really isn’t. It was only because the law society became politicized and insisted that lawyers express their concurrence with a specific ideological view that the StopSOP and FullStop campaigns arose.”

The activism within the law society is a distraction from its role, argued Ryan Alford, a professor at the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.


Some FullStop candidates admit that the public relations undertaking is a difficult one because their position could look less like it’s about the role of the regulator and more about opposition to popular ideas like diversity and inclusion.

“They pitch themselves as adhering to these superficially unobjectionable ideas. Who is against diversity, equity, and inclusion? No one is against it,” said Stéphane Sérafin, a FullStop candidate. “So the tough sell part is that you have to explain to people that it’s not the ideas themselves that are the problem.”

The simplest objection to the statement of principles is simply that it’s not the law society’s job to tell lawyers what to think, argued Ryan Alford, a professor at the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.

“If the law society said, on pain of losing my license, that I had to affirm that I love my mother, I’m not going to do it, because what I’m doing is acknowledging that they have the power to do that,” said Alford.

The FullStop candidates have a sense that the secret ballots of the law society will benefit them because they’ve heard privately from people who support them but aren’t inclined to say so publicly.

“Our message has been enthusiastically received by lots of people—but again, many of them wish to say so only privately. That reflects the scary place we have reached in this country, where people are afraid to say what they think, even what it is shared by many others,” said Pardy.


Sérafin describes himself as someone who would traditionally define identify as a leftist, but his discomfort with “identity politics” has alienated him in recent years. As a law professor, he endured professional upheaval after first-year students complained to the university because he wouldn’t declare certain decisions racist and colonialist.

Sérafin describes this increasing tendency in universities and the strife in professional regulators and white-collar employers as a pathology of the “professional-managerial class.” The term was coined by leftist writers in the 20th century to describe the white-collar workers who found themselves somewhere between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

In recent years, though, the phrase has been co-opted by conservatives and disaffected liberals like Sérafin to describe the burgeoning class of knowledge workers who are infusing social justice into their work lives.

Dijkema agrees that it is primarily a white-collar phenomenon.

“I would say it’s a university-educated issue. And I want to make clear here, there are real issues of injustice, right? On anything from Indigenous Affairs to racial issues, you just have to look at Canadian history and the injustice is real,” said Dijkema.

A common thread running through the institutions that have been paralyzed by these fights is a workplace that revolves around WhatsApp groups and Slack channels.

“I think this mode of talking about (injustice) is very much a laptop class thing,” said Dijkema.