TORONTO — Police fought back protesters as they tried to force their way inside Queen's Park during a rare midnight sitting of the Ontario legislature early Monday, as the Progressive Conservatives pushed a contentious bill to the next step.
"Notwithstanding! We're here standing," demonstrators chanted outside while they clapped, kicked, and banged their feet on boards outside.
"Let us in!"
"F**k you Ford!"
The noise could be heard from inside the chamber where MPPs debated Premier Doug Ford's move to slash Toronto city council and invoke a barely-used constitutional loophole to do so. The crowd became louder and more agitated when one woman came outside and told them, "There are a lot of empty seats in there."
Only half of the public gallery had been opened for use.
Inside, the first person to be kicked out of the opposition's gallery was former NDP MPP and Reverend Cheri Di Novo.
"You're better than this. You do not have to go through with this," she called towards the government's bench before she was asked to leave by security.
Continued shouts and interruptions inside the chamber forced the Speaker to clear the public gallery for the second time in less than a week. No one else was allowed inside.
The Progressive Conservative government called the late-night sitting to complete second-reading debate of its Effective Local Government Act by Monday morning. MPPs won't be in Toronto on Monday and Tuesday — they'll be attending a field-plowing competition, a Queen's Park tradition.
Ford has faced fierce opposition from the public and other politicians since he announced he would use Section 33 of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms to protect the act, also known as Bill 31, from judicial review. Some public figures however, including former premiers Brad Wall and Christy Clark, have said they support the Ford government's use of the notwithstanding clause.
As the sun rose, the overnight legislative session finished the required 6.5 hours of debate.
"We are the only ones listening to the people — not the disruptors, not the professional activists that we've seen over the last few days. And when you stand up for the people, the people will stand with you,'' Ford told the legislature.
"The people are behind us, and I can tell you my friends, we will never, ever back down."
The people are behind us, and I can tell you my friends, we will never, ever back down.Ontario Premier Doug Ford
A previous version of Ontario's law, Bill 5, was struck down by Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba as unconstitutional on Sept. 10.
Government MPPs defended the bill, and the government's decision to work overnight, in their speeches to the legislature.
"We need to take action. October 22 is just a few weeks away," Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said. Toronto's vote is supposed to take place on that date — although the city clerk in charge of election preparations has said it's becoming "virtually impossible" to hold a fair election.
New Democrats, meanwhile, said the tumult outside the legislature shows that many oppose the government's decision.
"How can you be here for the people when the people outside are banging to get into this building and not able to get into the building as a result of your actions?'" NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson said.
Clark claimed Toronto is famous nationwide for its dysfunctional city hall.
"Debates are time consuming. They're inefficient. They're costly," he said. "We're showing the people of Ontario that their trust in our government is well-placed."
Cost to taxpayers?
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner called on the premier to release the costs of holding an overnight session at the legislature.
"How much is it costing taxpayers to pay for MPPs to travel back to Queen's Park after heading home Thursday night?" Schreiner said in a press release. "How much is the government spending for staff and security over the weekend?"
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Reporters asked the same question to the premier before the midnight session. But Ford refused to specify costs.
"We wanted to get this done yesterday, but the NDP wanted to hold this up," he replied.
The NDP has vowed to delay the passing of Bill 31 for as long as possible. The party challenged it on procedural grounds.
Referencing Bill 5, the NDP argued that the House is not supposed to debate two bills that are substantially the same in one session.
The Speaker of the House disagreed, saying debate on Bill 31 would now focus primarily on the government's use of the charter's notwithstanding clause.
With files from The Canadian Press
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