NIAGARA FALLS, ONT.—Premier Doug Ford is in town looking for ways to spark a second honeymoon with voters after another tough week on the job.
With two years until the next provincial election in June 2022, the premier, his cabinet, MPPs and 1,000 party activists are meeting behind closed doors, at a convention centre a short walk from the famous falls, to begin crafting a campaign platform.
The building is marked with signs saying “closed for a private event” but the Progressive Conservatives won’t be alone.
Dozens of buses full of protesters organized by the Ontario Federation of Labour are slated to arrive Saturday morning from as far away as Ottawa and Windsor, keeping pressure on Ford to change course on several fronts after Friday’s massive protest by teachers — the largest in more than 20 years.
“No government I’ve ever been a part of has had a week without challenge and this is one of those for us as well,” said MPP Paul Calandra, who serves as government house leader.
He was referring to rotating teacher strikes — including Friday’s that closed every school in the province — and a public relations disaster over new double-blue licence plates that often can’t be read in the dark. Thousands issued so far will be replaced, but it took the government three days to admit the problem and arrange a solution.
Security outside the convention centre was so tight a guard repeatedly interrupted CBC reporter Mike Crawley’s live TV report, repeatedly getting between him and the camera, saying at one point “you can leave peacefully, or trespass.”
Crawley later tweeted that a party official eventually called off the guard and two members of Ford’s staff apologized.
Opposition parties said it’s no wonder the Conservatives are holding their convention with no scrutiny except for Ford’s dinner speech Saturday, which the media is allowed to cover. A well-placed source told the Star party officials had even contemplated keeping the address off limits.
“They are hunkering down,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
Calandra defended the decision to keep the convention in the family, and noted other parties do not allow unlimited access at similar events.
“This is a convention that will set the stage for the policies that we will fight the next election on. So a measure of internal caution is always required,” he told reporters.
“It’s about bringing people into the room, debating and discussing the policies.”
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser, whose own party will pick a new leader in two weeks, said the Ford administration needs to carefully consider its next steps after sliding in the polls from levels achieved with its 2018 election landslide.
“Given all the mistakes this government has made over almost two years, it’s not surprising they’re keeping a closed lid on their convention,” added Green Leader Mike Schreiner, citing moves to cut autism funding, increase classroom sizes and require high school students to take some courses online.
Ontario Federation of Labour president Patty Coates said protesters outside the hall will hold signs detailing the “gauntlet of cuts” by the government for conventioneers to see as they arrive by car and from nearby hotels.
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“They have touched every vulnerable sector and person,” she added.
The OFL has been working with Niagara Region police and the OPP on the protest, which is expected to prompt a road closure and see labour leaders making speeches from a flatbed truck.
“We want them to hear us inside the convention centre,” Coates said.