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We’ve seen claims of ‘Common Sense’ before and it wasn’t pretty

Originally published in the Toronto Star

Memory is a powerful thing. We all have memories of beautiful moments that come back from time to time. But there is also another kind of memory that evokes disturbing events from the past.

Each time I hear Pierre Poilievre repeat his “common sense” slogan, my mind leaps back to the turmoil in Ontario during the Common Sense Revolution of Mike Harris. It wasn’t pretty.

Harris swept to power in 1995 with the lines “Government isn’t working anymore. The system is broken.” His was a backlash election, riding a wave of discontent about people’s insecurity and government deficits.

It was a tax revolt fueled by business while labour was deeply divided. There had been fractious debate around LGBT rights and racial justice policies. We saw the blatant use of dog-whistle politics against immigrants and the “undeserving” poor.

The Conservatives immediately imposed a truly radical political agenda. Within days of taking office, entire government programs were wiped out.

Employment Equity legislation was repealed, over 200 social housing projects were cancelled, and welfare rates were slashed by 21 per cent. The Anti-Racism Secretariat was shut down. Sweeping changes were made to labour law and employment standards, and it became much harder for anyone to join a union.

To pay for their tax cuts the Conservatives took a scalpel to the health-care system and a sledgehammer to public education. There were closures of hospitals and local health facilities, while homecare services were taken from reputable non-profit groups and awarded to private companies paying poverty wages. People were outraged when the minister of health compared nurses who lost their jobs to workers making hoola-hoops that were no longer in demand.

The minister of education spoke of “creating a useful crisis” to force massive change in how schools were run. Soon all education funding was stripped from local school boards and centralized. The flawed funding formula imposed by Queen’s Park sparked huge cuts in teaching, support staff and vital programs. Schools were slated for closure, along with pools, arts and music and shop programs. 

The Metro Days of Action, October 26, 1996. | Andrew Stawicki 

Every year brough more turmoil to our schools, and parents had to constantly mobilize to save the quality of their kid’s education.

The Common Sense ideology also brought tragic outcomes. Deregulation of water standards resulted in heart-breaking deaths in Walkerton. Eugene Upper froze to death in a Toronto bus shelter. Indigenous land defender Dudley George was shot and killed at Ipperwash.

Conservatives downloaded massive responsibilities and costs onto municipalities and ended all support for transit operations. Suddenly cities were supposed to pay for social services, public health and community housing, while the impact of welfare cuts resulted in people sleeping on the streets. 

The minimum wage was frozen for eight years, and Workers Compensation benefits were cut. As line-ups grew at food banks, one Conservative cabinet minister told the poor that they should search for dented tins of tuna in stores so they could afford groceries.

The craziest example of this Common Sense approach was halting the Eglinton subway project designed to reach the airport. The excavation was filled in with dirt – at a cost of $100 million!

Hundreds of angry construction workers marched to the site and threw a coffin into the hole to represent all the jobs being buried with that outrageous decision.

Other changes were not so obvious. In long-term care most homes had been run by non-profit community groups or municipalities. Over a decade deregulation transformed the sector, so that the vast majority of facilities are now owned by corporate chains.

When the COVID pandemic hit, private operations experienced three times higher death rates than public homes, with terrible scenes of neglect. It’s no small irony that after retirement Harris became the chairman of Chartwell, where he was paid far more for a part-time job than he earned as the Premier of Ontario.  

The trouble is that these are not simply bad memories. They have a lasting impact that we still live with today. The crisis in healthcare, the financial burden on cities, the lack of affordable housing and explosion of homelessness, the flawed underfunding of our schools – all are consequences of the radical imposition of the Common Sense Revolution.

I don’t trust the anger of today’s backlash politics – we have had enough “common sense” for a lifetime.

John Cartwright

John Cartwright

John Cartwright was elected Chairperson of the Council of Canadians at the Annual Members Meeting held in June 2019. He is the Past President of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, representing 200,000 union members who work in every sector of the economy.