For other people of the same name, see Michael Harris (disambiguation).
Michael Deane "Mike" Harris (born January 23, 1945) was the 22nd Premier of Ontario from June 26, 1995 to April 15, 2002. He is most noted for the "Common Sense Revolution", his Progressive Conservative government's program of deficit reduction in combination with lower taxes and cuts to government programs.
Harris was born in Toronto, Ontario, the son of Hope Gooding (née Robinson) and Sidney Deane Harris. He grew up in North Bay, where his father operated the Wasi Falls Resort fishing camp. Harris first attended Waterloo Lutheran University (now Wilfrid Laurier University) but left after a year. At the age of 21, following his father's purchase of a ski-hill, Harris moved to Sainte-Adèle, Quebec where he became a ski instructor over the course of two years. After the unravelling of his first marriage, he enrolled at Laurentian University and North Bay Teacher's College where he received his teaching certificate. He was employed as an elementary school teacher at W. J. Fricker Public School in North Bay where he taught grade seven and eight mathematics for several years in a new open-concept class of 120 students. He continued his previous career as a ski-instructor at Nipissing Ridge on weekends as well as working at his father's fishing camp during the summer season. He eventually left the teaching profession as the success of the ski resort escalated. After his father sold his own ski-hill operation, Harris landed a position managing North Bay's Pinewood Golf Club.
Early political career
Harris was first elected to public office as a school board trustee in 1974. He entered provincial politics in the 1981 election, and defeated the incumbent Liberal Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) in Nipissing, Mike Bolan. Harris later suggested that he was motivated to enter politics by an opposition to the policies of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
He sat as a backbencher in Bill Davis's Ontario Progressive Conservative Party government from 1981 to 1985. He supported Frank Miller's successful bid to succeed Davis as party leader in 1985, and took the role of rival candidate Dennis Timbrell to prepare Miller for the party's all-candidate debates. Miller was sworn in as Premier of Ontario on February 8, 1985, and appointed Harris as his Minister of Natural Resources.
The Tories were reduced to a minority government in the 1985 provincial election, although Harris was personally re-elected without difficulty. He kept the Natural Resources portfolio after the election, and was also named Minister of Energy on May 17, 1985. Time limitations prevented Harris from making many notable contributions in these portfolios, as the Miller government was soon defeated on a Motion of No Confidence by David Peterson's Liberals and Bob Rae's New Democratic Party.
An agreement between the Liberals and the NDP allowed a Liberal minority government to govern for two years in exchange for the implementation of certain NDP policies. This decision consigned the Tories to opposition for the first time in 42 years. Miller resigned and was replaced by Larry Grossman, who led the party to a disastrous showing in the 1987 election and announced his resignation shortly thereafter. Harris was again re-elected in Nipissing without difficulty.
The party was not ready to hold a leadership convention in 1987. Grossman, who had lost his legislative seat, remained the official leader of the party until 1990 while Sarnia MPP Andy Brandt served as "interim leader" in the legislature. Harris was chosen as PC house leader, and had become the party's dominant voice in the legislature by 1989. Harris entered the 1990 leadership race, and defeated Dianne Cunningham in a province-wide vote to replace Grossman as the party's official leader.
Leader of the third party
The 1990 provincial election was called soon after Harris became party leader. With help from past leader Larry Grossman, Harris managed to rally his party's core supporters with pledges of tax cuts and spending reductions. Due to his teaching background, Harris was personally endorsed by several local members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF). The party increased its seat total from 17 to 20 out of 130. Despite some early concerns, Harris was again able to retain his own seat. On May 3, 1994, Harris unveiled his "Common Sense Revolution" platform. An unusual document in the normally centrist Ontario political environment, it called for significant spending cuts and large tax cuts, as well as elimination of the province's record $11 billion deficit.
By 1995, the governing New Democratic Party and incumbent Premier Bob Rae had become extremely unpopular with the electorate, largely due to the state of the Ontario economy and its record debt and deficit amidst a Canada-wide recession. Lyn McLeod's Liberals were leading in pre-election polls and were expected to benefit from the swing in support away from the NDP, but they began losing support due to several controversial policy reversals and what was generally regarded as an uninspiring campaign. The turning point in the election is often considered to be Harris' performance in the televised leader's debate. Harris used his camera time to speak directly to the camera to convey his party's Common Sense Revolution platform. He was elected with a large majority government in the 1995 election. Roughly half of his party's seats came from the suburban belt surrounding Metro Toronto, often called the '905' for its telephone area code.
The Rae government had previously lost much of its base in organized labour, due in part to the unpopularity of its "Social Contract" legislation in 1993 (which Harris, after some initial vacillations, eventually voted against). Harris' opposition to Rae's affirmative action measures helped him to capture some union support during the election, particularly among male workers. Although there were regional variations, many working-class voters shifted from the NDP to the Tories in 1995 (instead of to the Liberals as expected pre-campaign), enabling the Tories to win a number of working-class ridings, such as Cambridge and Oshawa, which had long supported the NDP.
Common Sense Revolution
Upon election, the Harris government immediately began to implement a far-reaching reform agenda in order to cut the large provincial deficit accumulated under the previous Rae government. One of its first major policy decisions was to cut social assistance rates by 22%. The government stated that too many people were taking advantage of the program, and that it acted as a disincentive for seeking employment. Critics argued that the cuts were too dramatic, and increased the hardship of Ontario's poorest residents. The government also introduced "Ontario Works," frequently referred to as "workfare," a program that required able-bodied welfare recipients to participate in either training or job placements. Opponents criticized both the rationale and effectiveness of the program, which was significantly scaled back after Harris left office.
Provincial income taxes were cut by 30% to pre-1990 levels. In addition, a new Fair Share Health Levy was established and charged to high-income earners to help pay for mounting health care costs.
Shortly after assuming office, the Harris government announced that several hundred nurses would be laid off to cut costs in the health sector. The government also implemented a series of hospital closures on the recommendations of a Health Services Restructuring Commission. Harris compared the laid off hospital workers to the people who lost their jobs after the hula hoop fad died down in the early 1960s, commenting "Just as Hula-Hoops went out and those workers had to have a factory and a company that would manufacture something else that's in, it's the same in government, and you know, governments have put off these decisions for so many years that restructuring sometimes is painful" (The Globe and Mail, 6 March 1997).
The Harris government cut funding of major urban infrastructure projects upon assuming office. Though construction had already begun on the Eglinton West subway in Toronto, a proposed rapid transit line to ultimately link the main north/south subway line of the city with the suburbs and airport, funding was cancelled shortly after Harris' election.
Harris's government also cut health spending to counter the $30 Billion cut in transfer payments from the Liberal federal government. It also introduced Telehealth Ontario, a new 24-hour toll-free telephone help line with live connection to registered nurses. Harris also announced funding vehicles such as the Ontario R&D Challenge Fund, the Ontario Innovation Trust and the Premier's Research Excellence Awards.
One part of the Common Sense Revolution was to sell off various government-owned enterprises, the largest of which were to be Ontario Hydro and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Neither were actually sold off, but Ontario Hydro was split into five successor companies (the two largest being Ontario Power Generation and Hydro One, representing generation and distribution of power respectively) with the plan of eventually selling them off. Public opposition to the sale of these money-making government enterprises postponed the government's plans. In 1999, Highway 407 was leased to a private consortium in the largest such scheme to privatize the management of a public asset in Canadian history.
The government's administrative policies involved the amalgamation of several municipalities. In the largest and most widely-covered of these moves, the individual cities that made up Metro Toronto were merged into a single city (called the "megacity" by the media and citizens). The Conservatives stated that the move would eliminate duplication of services and increase efficiency, however while the amalgamation produced substantial dislocation in the delivery of civic services, in the decade since the amalgamation of Toronto no quantitative evidence of cost-savings has been produced. Opposition parties were strongly opposed to the move; the NDP took the unusual step of attempting to filibuster against the bill by reading out the name of every street name in Toronto. In order to further reduce provincial commitments, financial responsibility for provincial income assistance programs were transferred or "downloaded" to municipalities, increasing the burden on municipal tax bases.
The Harris government also announced several education reforms, most notably the elimination of the fifth year of high school in Ontario (known as the OAC year). This created a double graduating class in 2003 (known as the "double cohort") after Harris had left office. Other education reforms reduced the powers of school boards, and mandated a standardized curriculum and province-wide testing of students. In 1999, it introduced a policy of "teacher testing", requiring teachers to take examinations on a regular basis. The latter initiative was unpopular with teachers, many of whom regarded it as an intrusion on their professional autonomy. A separate controversy occurred shortly after the Harris government took office, involving events at Ipperwash Provincial Park, in which a native protester was killed by police. (See Ipperwash Crisis.)
In 1997, Ontario's teachers held the largest walkout in North American history, a two-week strike that the Harris government ruled was illegal, but were unsuccessful in getting significant changes to government policies. At Queen's Park, the site of the Ontario Legislature, there were several large protests and near-riots. Amid the general rise in the North American economy, economic indicators in Ontario improved dramatically. Ontario's growth outpaced most North American jurisdictions during Harris' first term. Even with a strong economy the Ontario provincial debt increased by an additional $20 Billion between 1995 and 1999 due to the lost revenue and borrowing required to fund Harris' massive tax cuts. He won another majority government in 1999.
In 1999, the Harris government was re-elected for a second term as a majority government, largely by its political base in the 905 area. 1999 Harris also announced a program called Ontario's Living Legacy. The initiative added 378 new parks and protected areas, bringing the total in Ontario to 650 and increasing Ontario's protected areas to more than 95,000 square kilometres.
Controversy arose in 2000 when the town water supply of Walkerton became infected by E. coli. Seven people died and hundreds became ill. It was later discovered the local official responsible for water quality, Stan Koebel, had lied, falsified records, failed to test water quality regularly, and when the outbreak occurred had failed to promptly notify the local Medical Officer of Health. In late 2004, Koebel pled guilty to a minor charge in relation to the offence and was sentenced to one year in jail.
The Walkerton tragedy had serious ramifications for Harris's government. David Peterson later acknowledged that it could have happened under any Premier's watch, and it was often noted that Koebel's lying and falsification of records had gone unnoticed by governments of different political stripes. Harris's critics, however, argued that his cuts to inspection services had created a situation in which future water safety could not be guaranteed. Harris's handling of the tragedy was also criticized, as he initially attempted to place some of the blame on previous Liberal and NDP governments. Harris called a public inquiry which later noted that in addition to Stan Koebel's failure to properly monitor and treat the water supply, deregulation of water quality testing and cuts to the Ministry of the Environment were contributing factors.
The Harris government balanced the provincial budget, although its critics contend that cuts in taxes caused a drop in revenues, which in turn led to renewed budget deficits after Harris resigned. Harris supporters pointed to the fact that government revenues rose from $48 billion in 1995 to $64 billion by 2001, when the budget was balanced. Harris' government reduced Ontario welfare rolls by 500,000 people; critics contend these cuts led to a rise in homelessness and poverty. Supporters argued that high welfare rates had created disincentives to find entry-level jobs, and that poverty levels remained relatively unchanged between 1995 and 2005. Employment rates increased significantly during the late 1990s, although some Harris critics argued that many of the new jobs were part-time rather than full-time and offered fewer benefits to employees. The government rewrote labour laws to require secret ballot votes before workplaces could unionize. The previous NDP government's law outlawing the hiring of "replacement workers" during strikes was repealed.
Other changes brought in by the Harris government include standardized student tests. These were criticized by some educators as forcing schools to teach in a manner simply oriented to test-passing, and not teach in a way to encourage genuine learning. Others valued the tests as a means for parents to measure their children's achievement and that of the school against peers. A new provincial funding formula for school boards stripped the local boards of their taxation powers.
The Harris government also faced controversy when Kimberly Rogers, a Sudbury woman who had been convicted of welfare fraud, died in her apartment while under house arrest in 2001. Her death was ruled a suicide. A subsequent inquest did not assign blame to the government for the woman's death, but recommended that lifetime bans for fraud be eliminated, and that adequate food, housing and medication be provided to anyone under house arrest.
In 2001, the Harris government introduced a plan to give a tax credit for parents who send their children to private and denominational schools (despite having campaigned against such an initiative in 1999). Supporters claimed it was fair given the public funding of Catholic schools, while opponents were concerned about a potential diversion of resources and students from the public system. Harris also broke with tradition to place backbench MPPs on Cabinet committees. He appointed more women as deputy ministers than any other premier in Ontario history, including the only two women to head the Ontario public service.
Out of politics
For personal reasons and in the face of declining public approval ratings, Harris resigned in 2002 and was succeeded as Tory leader and premier by his long-time friend and Minister of Finance, Ernie Eves.
Later in 2002, Harris joined the Fraser Institute, a right-of-centre libertarian think tank, as a 'Senior Fellow'. It was there that he became involved with the ideals of Preston Manning, becoming a major influence in federal politics as well as Alberta. His Common Sense Revolution was repeated in Alberta with each of the steps including the firing and rehiring of nurses. In January 2003, Harris was named to the Board of Directors of Magna International.
During his time as Premier, Harris was frequently cited as someone who could "unite the right" in Canada, and lead a merged party of federal Progressive Conservatives and Reform/Canadian Alliance supporters. He made serious steps toward a career in federal politics after stepping down as Premier, weighing in on issues such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq (which he supported) and the value of the Canadian dollar (which he wanted to see increase in relation to the American dollar). In late 2003, he made a speech in Halifax which many believed was the unofficial launch of a campaign to lead the new Conservative Party of Canada. In the end, Harris decided to stand aside; he later endorsed former Magna International President and CEO Belinda Stronach, in the 2004 Conservative Party of Canada leadership election.
He was later involved in a minor controversy, yelling and repeatedly swearing at a party official who asked him for his identification as he voted in the 2004 Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leadership election.
Shortly after his first election win in 1995, Mike Harris faced his first crisis as Premier. Protesters fighting land claim issues took over a Provincial Park 150 km North West of Toronto. During a confrontation with the demonstrators, Ontario Provincial Police acting Sgt. Kenneth Deane fired on First Nations demonstrators who had occupied the park, killing a protester named Dudley George. In the inquiry following the shooting, it was determined that while some protesters were carrying rocks, sticks and baseball bats, none were carrying firearms. The confrontation that led to the shooting began when police clashed with a protester armed with a steel pipe. The government and the OPP maintained that there was no political involvement in the shooting, but inside the Legislature, several opposition politicians suggested that the attack may have been ordered by the Premier's office, and called for an independent judicial inquiry. In a court case that went all the way the Supreme Court of Canada, Deane maintained that he was not under orders to shoot and was convicted of criminal negligence causing death. An inquiry was called after the government of Dalton McGuinty was elected in 2003.
On November 28, 2005, former Attorney General Charles Harnick testified before the inquiry that Harris had shouted "I want the fucking Indians out of the park" at a meeting with Ontario Provincial Police officer Ron Fox, hours before the shooting occurred (Canadian Press, 28 November 2005, 12:45 report). Other witnesses have disputed this account, and Harris himself has denied it under oath.
On February 14, 2006, Harris took the stand to testify before the Ipperwash Inquiry. The inquiry, headed by commissioner Sidney Linden, released its report on May 31, 2007. It concluded that Harris did not bear responsibility for the outcome at Ipperwash:
The evidence demonstrated that the Premier and his officials wanted the occupation to end quickly, but there is no evidence to suggest that the Premier or any official in his government was responsible for Mr. George's death.
However, the report also stated that the both the provincial and federal levels of government, as well as the Ontario Provincial Police shared responsibility for the events at Ipperwash. The report found that while Harris did not order the police to remove protesters from the park, his approach "narrowed the scope" of the response to the situation:
The Premier's determination to seek a quick resolution closed off many options endorsed by civil servants in the Ontario government, including process negotiations, the appointment of mediators, and opening up communication with the First Nations people. His narrow approach to the occupation did not enable the situation to stabilize at the park.
The Inquiry found that Harris did say "I want the fucking Indians out of the park," despite his denials to that effect. This finding was based on not being able to find an existing animosity from Charles Harnick towards Mike Harris and the fact that Harnick was reversing previous statements that he had made in the legislature which would not be of any benefit to himself.
In late May 2010, Nipissing University confirmed that Harris would receive an Honorary Doctorate. In response, the Ontario Teachers' Federation has threatened to discourage, or even prevent, their members from acting as associate teachers for students in Nipissing University's Bachelor of Education program, which requires students to complete 12 weeks of practice teaching in a classroom. Nipissing University's new 25 million dollar library was originally named after premier Harris.
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