Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has given full-throated support to the 25 Liberal MPs from Toronto who publicly called out Ontario Premier Doug Ford's use of the notwithstanding clause.
All of the Grit MPs from Canada's largest city — a group that includes senior figures such as Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen — signed off on a letter calling Ford's use of the clause "heavy-handed and disrespectful."
"Quite frankly, it's something that I expect of all our MPs, to be strong voices for their communities in Ottawa," Trudeau told reporters at the conclusion of the Liberal caucus retreat in Saskatoon Thursday.
He praised the MPs for voicing the "very real concerns" Torontonians are feeling as Ford moves to override rights guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms with a bill to slash the size of Toronto's city council during an election.
The prime minister said he is a "staunch believer and defender" of the charter, perhaps his father's crowning achievement. Still, Trudeau reiterated that he will not take action to try to stop Ford.
"I am disappointed the provincial government chose to take this decision to override people's rights and freedoms but, at the same time, I'm not going to weigh in on the actual debate over the size of the municipal governments in Ontario, in Toronto," he said. "I don't think that's a role that the federal government needs to take on."
The letter calls on members of Ontario's legislature to "defeat Ford's legislation," something that would require members of the majority Progressive Conservative government to dramatically break ranks.
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"In particular, we believe MPPs elected in Toronto have a responsibility to defend the city, its democratic institutions, and the rights of citizens to a free and fair municipal election," it reads.
The PC caucus includes 11 MPPs from Toronto, including Ford, a former city councillor. His rivals have accused the premier of carrying out a personal vendetta against left-leaning councillors with whom he clashed during his one term on council.
The premier, meanwhile, argues it's a matter of defending democracy because the judiciary overruled a decision taken by an elected government. It marks the first time the notwithstanding clause has been invoked in Ontario's history, less than three months after Ford came to power.
Toronto-Danforth MP Julie Dabrusin, who is listed as the caucus spokesperson, told HuffPost Canada that the "unprecedented" step by the Ford government demanded a response.
"We were concerned by the ready willingness of the Ontario government and premier to invoke the notwithstanding clause," Dabrusin said. "It's a heavy-handed approach when there are tools available to them, such as an appeal."
The MP also said it was concerning that Ford has already mused about using Section 33 of the Charter for other issues.
Dabrusin downplayed that some could see the letter as a partisan jab against a Tory government in Ontario that has already clashed with federal Liberals on carbon pricing and asylum seekers. She noted legendary former PC premier Bill Davis has also come out against Ford's gambit.
She also said she was not disappointed that Trudeau will not get more directly involved in the controversy, saying the focus should be on the MPPs at Queen's Park who are voting on the bill.
"That's our democratic institutions at work. They need to listen to all of the Ontarians and all of the people who are speaking out."
Read the full letter below:
Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has had little to say on the controversy, but has told The Canadian Press the Ford government is within its legal rights to use the provision.
Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh suggested as his caucus retreat in Surrey, B.C. that Ford's government was proving to be "fringe" and extreme. He released a statement Thursday calling for an emergency meeting of the Commons justice committee to "gather input from expert witnesses and discuss ways of working together with the provinces to protect the rights of Canadians."
Repeated and "reckless" use of the notwithstanding clause can have far-reaching consequences, Singh said in the release, and "all provinces must be brought to the table."