Activists collect signatures on large copy of Charter at Queen's Park protest picnic

Activists brought a large copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the Ontario legislature on Saturday to gather signatures as the province held a rare weekend sitting to talk about legislation that will use the notwithstanding clause.

Signatures show 'widespread public opposition' to government bill, activist says

A woman on the grounds of the Ontario legislature signs a piece of paper attached to a large copy of the Canadian Charter of the Rights and Freedoms. The copy of the Charter will be delivered to the Ontario government to show opposition to its intention to use the notwithstanding clause. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Activists brought a large copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the Ontario legislature on Saturday to gather signatures as the province held a rare weekend sitting to talk about legislation that will use the notwithstanding clause.

The Council of Canadians, a social action organization that created the poster-sized document, has attached to it a long piece of paper, roughly a metre by 10 metres, that contains the signatures. It also contains messages in opposition to a provincial government bill that will cut the size of Toronto's city council from 47 wards to 25.

Bill 31, the Efficient Local Government Act, which has passed first reading, was tabled a little more than a month before Toronto's municipal election.

Premier Doug Ford and the PCs have consistently maintained that the purpose of the legislation is to limit "dysfunction" at city hall.

In a video released on Saturday, the attorney general's ministry defended the use of Section 33 of the Charter. It said the section was included in the constitution to protect the right of elected representatives to make laws in the public interest and the province intends to use the clause for the exact reason it was written.

"Voters deserve certainty, and they deserve to have this election proceed on time," the video added. "A smaller Toronto City Council would be able to move faster and more efficiently to build housing, transit and infrastructure."

Mark Calzavara, Ontario regional organizer for the Council of Canadians, said the collection of signatures took place during a "protest picnic" that was peaceful.

"It's important to speak to the powers that be, the government that was elected, yes," Calzavara said on Saturday. "While the government does have authority over municipalities, it doesn't have the authority to do whatever it wants."

A woman stands with a protest sign on the steps of the Ontario legislature. 'Hands off the Charter,' it reads. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

More than 200 people have signed the paper, many leaving messages.

Calzavara said more than seven million people in Ontario did not vote for Ford's Progressive Conservative Party and the PCs didn't campaign on the cut to Toronto's city council and overriding the Charter.

The bill itself is "poorly thought out," and the notwithstanding clause was not intended to be used for such political purposes, he said. "Having a hidden agenda" and "pursuing any means necessary" to impose the will of the province on another level of government is not democracy, he said.

"It's important that we challenge that and we point out that there is widespread public opposition."

A woman makes a protest sign on the grounds of Queen's Park in Toronto on Saturday. ( Francis Ferland/CBC)

Opposition is also coming from Conservative voters and donors over the use of the notwithstanding clause, he added.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Council of Canadians brought the large copy of the Charter to a protest at Toronto city hall, held at the same time that the government was introducing the bill. Protesters at that rally were invited to sign it then as well.

The group has also collected more than 5,750 signatures on an online petition that calls on Ontario Attorney General Caroline Mulroney to condemn the use of the notwithstanding clause and use her power to stop it.

Originally, the Council of Canadians was going to deliver the copy of the Charter to the government on Saturday but decided to collect more signatures first. Saturday's special session lasted about 45 minutes.

Bill 31 is new legislation that replaces a previous bill struck down by an Ontario Superior Court judge, who said it violated the Charter rights of candidates and voters in Toronto's upcoming election. The new legislation will invoke the notwithstanding clause to overrule the court decision.

Use of notwithstanding clause shows 'contempt'

Earlier in the week, human rights organization Amnesty International Canada issued a statement condemning the government's intention to use the notwithstanding clause.​ The organization is known for its campaigns against repressive governments around the world.

Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, told CBC Toronto that the Ford government is "abusing" the clause and undermining the Charter. 

"We don't have a position on what the size of the municipal council in the city of Toronto should be. That's not at the heart of our human rights mandate, obviously. But we are ardent champions of the Charter of Rights as the most important document we have in the country for defending human rights," Neve said.

"And we've never been a fan of the notwithstanding clause. We realize it's there, we wish it wasn't, and we certainly don't want governments to resort to it. And at a minimum, we only want governments to even consider using the notwithstanding clause when we're truly faced with a situation of dire emergency and great urgency, which we are not even remotely close to."

Amnesty is calling on all MPPs to vote against the bill. Ontario's municipal elections are set for Oct. 22.  

With files from The Canadian Press