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Rally to restore rights and democracy in Ontario draws over 25,000 protesters

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Be fair. Be respectful. And be democratic.

That’s the lesson Ken Coran hopes to teach the Liberal party, all politicians and recent and future governments in Ontario.

“The lesson is simple,” said Coran, president, Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation (OSSTF) at the Rally for Rights and Democracy on Saturday afternoon in Toronto.

“It’s easy to say and it’s easy to understand. Three simple rules that any government can use.”

Coran was determined that every politician in Ontario will hear those three words.

“They listen to them and they follow them,” he said. “Because we are going to hold everybody accountable. We’re not going to let anybody ever forget that.”

More than 25,000 people from over 100 community groups and labour unions came together in Allan Gardens, just steps away from Maple Leaf Gardens where the Ontario Liberals were holding their leadership convention, to protest cuts to social programs and the assault on workers’ rights.

“This is what happens when you wake up a sleeping giant in this province,” said Sam Hammond, president, Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO).

“And we will never, ever forget how this government has treated us for over a year.”

The Liberals curbed teachers’ right to strike, cut the number of sick days from 20 to 11 and ended payouts of unused sick days at retirement when they introduced Bill 115, which was repealed on Wednesday morning.

Hammond pointed out that the struggle for democracy isn’t just about teachers.

“This is a struggle for all of us who are here and everyone in this province,” said Hammond.

“You need to remember that this is about the person standing in front of you, beside you, behind you and we are in this together.”

Under a cold but sunny day, a grey and pink elephant stood on the stage along side the speakers and in front of a giant ‘Restore Rights and Democracy’ banner. 

“Because an elephant has a long memory,” said Fred Hahn, CUPE Ontario president. “And we must have one too.”

Workers won’t soon forget that the Liberal government stripped people of their democratic right to collective bargaining through Bill 115.

“We will never forget that we are stronger when we work together,” said Hahn. “And we must never forget the benefits that free collective bargaining have brought to our communities.”

Parental leave. Health and safety. Good working standards. And decent wages.

“We have you to thank for the 40 hour work week and minimum wage,” said Natalie Mehra, director, Ontario Health Coaltion.

“And pensions and extended health-care benefits.”

In spite of this, unions are blamed for the deficit in Ontario.

“The recession and endless tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations did that,” said Mehra.

“Yet working people are paying a very dear price for the excesses and the greed of the financial industries.”

In Ontario, the last budget contained over $10 billion in cuts to public services. 

Cuts to health-care. Cuts to social assistance. Cuts to education.

“Regular working people, the poor and the elderly are all paying now,” said Mehra. 

Nobody knows that better than the people who live in the neighbourhood surrounding Allan Gardens in the Downtown Eastside.

“This park that you’re standing in today is an important site of resistance in Ontario for many generations,” said Liisa Schofield, an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).

Many demonstrations have originated in Allan Gardens over the decades.

On Saturday, hundreds of anti-poverty activists marched from Moss Park, just south of Allan Gardens, to join the rally.

On their way, they took over one of the numerous abandoned properties in the neighbourhood where they dropped their ‘Housing Now’ banner. 

They also hung a ‘No More Homeless Deaths’ banner on the chain linked fence outside the property.

“And we did this because this past week, we learned of another homeless death in the city,” said Schofield. 

The 35th homeless death in the last twelve months - that they are aware of.

“People are homeless while properties sit empty,” said Schofield. “And while 90,000 households are on the waiting list for social housing.”

The Liberal government added to the Harris government cuts by making more cuts of their own. 

This year they targeted the Community Startup and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB), a benefit for social assistance recipients trying to get off the streets, escape domestic abuse or move from a bed bug infested apartment.

“This is the legacy of Dalton McGuinty and the Ontario Liberal Party,” she said. “But we will oppose and defeat their austerity agenda.”

After the speeches, they marched to Maple Leaf Gardens to send their clear and loud message to the present and future Ontario Liberal government.

“The Liberals have lost the love of the labour movement and those friends that we have and there’s no amount of courtship that’s going to bring that back,” said OFL president Sid Ryan, standing in front of Maple Leaf Gardens.

“You can’t attack them and expect that somehow we’re just magically going to forget about it.”

Nor will they forget the austerity agenda that was foisted upon the working class, the middle class, the poor and the homeless.

“That’s what happens when a government loses sight of who they’re representing,” said Ryan.

“So you can elect whoever you like because you’re electing the leader of the third party no matter what you do.”

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