Ontario political activists see Ontario as a liberal society, surrounded by neighbors who are less so.
Regardless of party label, liberal sentiments are usually in charge. Sure, Ontario liberal and progressive politicians must keep an eye on taxes and deficits. But, in their hearts, they are in it for the little guy; they embrace change and distrust bullying traditions.
Historically, their outstanding virtue was their skepticism toward entrenched institutional authority. This perspective wasn’t always popular—but it was genuine. Colonial Tories and their Crown, in fact, labeled and persecuted many of them as radical democrats and traitors.
That was then.
If liberalism in Ontario stands for anything today, it stands for trust in public power.
Liberals such as premier Dalton McGuinty talk about new challenges, embrace futurists, and put their faith in established institutions. They call their opponents extremists and defend the province’s oldest institutions.
Least discussed and least liberal is their deference toward state power’s most faithful servant: the police.
A couple of years ago, Toronto hosted the G-20. To help protect Canada’s reputation as a quiet northern democracy, the Ontario Cabinet quietly gave Ontario police forces additional powers to restrain thousands of anticipated protestors. The well-publicized incidents of abusive policing that did ensue were blamed on a handful of overzealous officers and, conceivably, the brutish vibes given off that Alberta Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.
Indeed, Toronto’s Chief of Police at the time, Bill Blair, survived the G-20 scandal. Indeed, he has sufficient stature today to publicly protect his vast police bureaucracy from budget cuts that are being imposed across other Toronto services.
Rob Ford, Toronto's populist conservative mayor, asks for cuts in the police budget, and Blair responds that he wouldn’t be able to do his job. And left councilors obsequiously agree with the Chief: the “safety” of the city was supposedly at stake.
Fifty years ago, those councilors' bravest liberal-minded parents would have asked for Blair’s immediate resignation. The others would have whispered to themselves: who’s left to control the beast?
As important, this month, Premier Dalton McGuinty threw his credibility as Ontario’s most successful Liberal Premier into upholding the Ontario Provincial Police’s right to use their professional judgment in deciding when they should serve a formal order from the court.
In a province-wide broadcast, OPP Superintendent Chris Lewis repudiated a complaint by Justice David Brown of the Ontario Superior Court that a court order to lift a railway blockade wasn’t being acted on. Lewis stated that his overriding responsibility was to maintain the peace. Amazingly, McGuinty offered him his unqualified support: “In our democracy, we do not direct the police. That would be inappropriate.”
No? In some societies, the police are free to take care of things. But, surely, not in ours.
Premier McGuinty, of course, can call his Deputy Minister of Energy to help nudge along new supports for clean energy, but must not call the police to tell them how to make an arrest. That said, policing isn’t an existential job in a liberal democracy, I think.
The situation was complicated: it involved First Nation grievances and a blockade of a vital transportation system. For the protestors and the wider society, many complex and conflicting rights were in dispute. (Two legal scholars backed Lewis’s ‘cautious’ approach.) The case for police discretion, nevertheless, boils down to two dangerous assumptions: the police may have better political instincts than the judges, and that peace and quiet is their overriding mission.
Liberals and tomorrow’s insolent protestors should be wary.
Democracy doesn’t keep our liberties robust by guaranteeing that the most politically astute are always in charge. Furthermore, the politically astute aren’t necessarily nice. Our system is called liberal because it gives power and assigns accountability only to the ones that get elected.
We elect politicians to keep our rights up-to-date and we assign to free courts the authority to oversee their decisions and the actions of their agents. Our police forces aren’t free simply to keep the peace. Otherwise, they’d be tempted to exile troublemakers, just like the good ol’ days.