There may only be a few people who would jump with excitement at the chance to go in to work on a Sunday, but it recently became quite apparent that we interns are definitely part of that exclusive group of people. On Saturday, January 24, 2009 word quickly spread that the next day Premier Dalton McGuinty would recall the Legislature from its winter break to address the months-long strike that had been affecting York University. This would be done through controversial “back-to-work” legislation, whereby the striking York employees would have to return to work immediately while representatives from both sides of the dispute would submit to binding arbitration as a means to finally end a strike that had left thousands of students out of class and their academic year in jeopardy.
I have to admit though, upon hearing the news that the Legislature would be coming back for an emergency sitting, the details of the situation were secondary to the fact that we would experience the Legislature’s handling of such a rare and controversial issue. Tempers on all sides were flaring, protests were being organized for the front lawn of the Legislature, and the halls of Queen’s Park were buzzing with cameras and reporters, MPPs, political staff and affected members of the public. The excitement of the “Pink Palace” that we had all so greatly missed during the winter hiatus had come back in a big way.
On Sunday, several interns convened at Chelsea’s office about an hour before the proceedings were to begin. The Public Galleries were closed for construction and the limited seating space in the Members’ Galleries would have to serve all who wished to watch the proceedings live. Interestingly, to make up for the lack of seating in the Public Galleries, Legislative staff had also set up 2 committee rooms with big TV screens which would televise the actual introduction of the legislation, the York University Labour Dispute Resolution Act, 2009, Bill 145. This was done to make the Legislature as accessible to the public as possible, despite the construction in the Public Galleries.
But the emergency sitting didn’t only pose a problem for the galleries – as it turns out, the Mace was also off site for cleaning! As you may know, the Mace is representative of the Speaker’s power and business at the Legislature cannot be conducted unless the Mace is present. So, the Legislature’s original Mace (made in 1702 and famously stolen by the Americans during the war of 1812 only to be returned in 1934) was taken out of its display case and used for the proceedings, making the day all the more historic.
Much to our disappointment, the House adjourned on Sunday less than an hour after the legislation was introduced, due to the absence of the unanimous consent as required to move the bill on to second reading. I had imagined us sitting there late into the night, observing Members heatedly debating the bill amid cries of protest from the galleries and faint shouts heard from the protesters amassed on the front lawn of the legislature. Sadly, this dramatic scenario did not come to fruition.
However, just because the House had adjourned for the day, the action hadn’t stopped. Outside the chamber, the media were frantically scrumming union leaders, York University students, the Premier, Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory, NDP leader Howard Hampton and others who had taken a stand on the issue. We lingered in the hallway, attempting to listen intently to what was being said in various scrums (OK…we also may have been shamelessly trying to appear in the background of interviews which would be featured on the six o’clock news that night).
Debate on the back-to-work legislation continued through the week, which meant, much to our excitement, that there was even a daily Question Period again. Despite the severity of the situation being addressed, it was great to see all the Members back and to have the Legislature abuzz again. The legislation passed on Thursday, January 29 and within a few hours, the Legislature was back to its quiet and calm self. While some were understandably less enthusiastic about having to return to Queen’s Park for the emergency sitting, there were ten extra-enthusiastic interns bouncing around the halls of the Legislature that week. I think our internship was enriched by experiencing such an extraordinary moment in provincial politics and labour relations.