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In some countries when you disagree with the state, they throw you in jail or worse.
In Canada, and most recently Ontario, governments find other, more elegant ways to punish or silence their critics.
It stems from the notion that people with different viewpoints are somehow enemies rather than citizens engaged in healthy debate aimed at bettering the nation or province in which we live.
This reached a feverish pitch during the years Stephen Harper was prime minister. You may recall his binders full of enemies.
First on that list were feminist organizations. His government defunded them, many of them challenged his government’s position on things like women’s equality and pay equity.
Targets also included unions, certain charities (who conveniently were subjected to costly and time-consuming audits by Canada’s Revenue Agency), scientists, and dozens of progressive organizations.
His attack on unions took many forms, including weakening collective bargaining rights for workers in the federal sector and legislation designed to tie unions up in costly red-tape requirements. Bill 377, as it was known, was opposed vehemently by a number of organizations which deemed it unconstitutional, including the Canadian Bar Association.
Former Progressive Conservative Senator Hugh Segal was among many who argued against the legislation saying it was deeply flawed, likely unconstitutional and gave the upper hand to employers and other corporate entities who would not face the same requirements under the law. “This badly drafted bill…. was a violation of privacy and a direct attack on the right to organize and run unions, a right basic to a free market economy and the give and take essential to balance and fairness,” he said.
None of that mattered.
The Harper goal was to attack those who disagreed with your ideology and decisions. Unions spent years fighting the unfair legislation, tying up resources to do so. And that was the point.
As Harper was attacking unions federally, his Ontario Conservative counterpart at the time, Tim Hudak, had issued his own warnings that unions were on an “enemies list.”
Hudak, had he been elected, planned to legislate right-to-work laws, like in the United States. Under those laws, employees can opt out of paying unions dues, even though their workplaces were organized under the law and even though they would continue to benefit from the collective agreements covering those workplaces. Unions are democratic organizations, with members voting on joining and the dues structure.
This free-rider system was a direct attack on trade unions.
Fast forward a few years to Doug Ford’s Ontario.
The premier and his advisors have learned their lessons well.
Since getting elected, the Ford government has staged a blistering attack on anything and everything.
The government rolled back important legislated changes that would have made workplaces more fair, eliminated a wage increase for the lowest paid workers in the province, dumped the new sex education curriculum and an expert panel designed to combat violence against women — to name a very few.
Most recently, Ford and his government declared war on post-secondary students and their student unions, by attacking affordability and student unions’ source of funding: membership dues.
Funding used to advocate and organize for free or affordable education. Funding that helps pay for important student services on campuses. He has proposed a regulation allowing students to opt out of paying union dues to their student organizations.
Everyone knows what this will mean. Services to students (including student media) will suffer and an organized voice that argues for free education will be weakened.
A weakened, less organized opposition makes it a lot easier for his government to bring forward even more cuts to post-secondary education in future budgets.
It’s the shock-doctrine approach.
Of note, Ford did not campaign on making education more expensive “for the people.”
Also of note, we all lose when we make post-secondary education unattainable for so many students including young people from working class families, families struggling, juggling multiple jobs, so their children can go to university or college.
As a society we lose when governments put barriers in place to post-secondary education, we lose untapped potential from those who never get a chance to learn. Kids from wealthy families will always have access.
But if you are truly “for the people” making education affordable for all (I would argue free) ought to be a top priority.
As for trade unions, this attack on student unions should not go unnoticed or unchallenged.
For everyone else, there is a consistent theme here.
More and more governments are comfortable with attacking those who disagree with them, weakening their critics by attacking them financially.
Make no mistake this weakens our democracy and our nation. If you care about those things, we welcome you to join the fight.
Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for Unifor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lanampayne Her column returns in two weeks.