TORONTO — A Progressive Conservative legislator who publicly denounced Ontario's decision to eliminate the independent office of the French-language services commissioner and a planned French-language university severed ties with the Tories on Thursday, the culmination of a dispute that saw her vote against her own party's legislation.
In a letter to the Speaker of the legislature, Amanda Simard said her decision was effective immediately, and she will remain as an independent. New Democrats and Liberals said they were not aware of any efforts to recruit her to their ranks.
"I am no longer a member of the Progressive Conservative Caucus,'' Simard wrote in the short letter. "I will continue to take my place in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario as an Independent.''
The rookie legislator, who represents a largely Franco-Ontarian riding, broke ranks with Premier Doug Ford's government over the two controversial decisions affecting about 600,000 francophones in the province.
Simard said Wednesday that she was not satisfied by the government's announcement late last week that it would create a commissioner position within the office of the provincial ombudsman, establish a Ministry of Francophone Affairs, and hire a senior policy adviser on francophone affairs in the premier's office.
She said the "partial backtracking'' was not enough, and chose to vote against the legislation that included the changes.
Ford has said the measures regarding the commissioner and the university in the fall economic statement were necessary to bring down the province's deficit, although he has not said how much would be saved.
He defended the moves again in the legislature Thursday, saying he had spoken to many Franco-Ontarians in the last few weeks and offered some concessions after hearing their concerns.
"Even though it's three per cent of the population in Ontario, they played a major role of culture and history, in different areas of business in Ontario. We did listen, because I've talked to hundreds of Franco-Ontarians ... they really appreciate us being forward about the university,'' he said.
"They realize that our province was left in a bankruptcy state.''
Simard argued Wednesday that the government's moves would not "contribute in any meaningful way'' to the provincial belt-tightening.
Some Tories suggested Simard had crossed a line by voting against the fall economic statement, a bill that was up for a confidence vote.
"I'm not OK with that, but I mean, nobody's OK with that, certainly I think that's a big mistake for her and she's going to have to answer to her constituents for voting against a plan that's actually going to reduce the cost of living,'' Tory House Leader Todd Smith said.
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Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod said she was disappointed with Simard's decision but wished her well as an independent.
"I know many members of our government reached out to her, she chose not to take them up on those offers,'' she said. "But let me be perfectly clear, she voted against a budget bill, the fall economic statement, that's pretty serious.''
Opposition politicians criticized what they called the government's disregard for the rights of francophones and expressed support for Simard.
The NDP's John Vanthof said Ford downplayed the importance of Franco-Ontarians, noting they make up close to five per cent of the province's population, not three.
"This premier does not understand francophones and he doesn't respect francophones,'' he said.
Vanthof said Simard had not approached New Democrats about joining them and was not aware of any attempts by the party to reach out to her.
This premier does not understand francophones and he doesn't respect francophones.John Vanthof
Liberal legislator and former premier Kathleen Wynne said Simard had gone through a very difficult time and taken bold action on behalf of her constituents.
"It took a lot of courage for her to stand up yesterday in the legislature, it's taken a lot of courage for her to leave what is her political family and my heart goes out to her,'' Wynne said.
"That situation is one that the government has brought upon itself because I don't think anyone, including this young MPP Amanda Simard, expected that the government would declare war on the francophone population in Ontario.''
Asked whether the Liberals would try to recruit Simard, Wynne said neither she nor her colleagues have had that conversation with the newly independent legislator, but added they are open to those who want to work with them.
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Simard's new status stirred some concerns in Russell, the eastern Ontario community where she served as a city councillor before joining the Tory roster under then-leader Patrick Brown.
"She might not be as strong a voice municipally at Queen's Park,'' said Russell's mayor, Pierre Leroux. "But I think what she has done is, even though her voice will maybe not carry as much weight at Queen's Park, she has lit a match in the Franco-Ontario community. Their voice is just going to be louder because of this.''
The Assemblee de la francophonie de l'Ontario, an organization representing Franco-Ontarians, said it respects Simard's decision to break away from the government.
"Ms. Simard is a principled person who has a right to manage her political future. We thank her for being a friend of Ontario's francophone community,'' the group said on Twitter.
Simard, who represents the eastern Ontario riding of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, holds a law degree from the University of Ottawa and previously worked on Parliament Hill as a policy adviser.
With files from Nicole Thompson