When Mike Harris came to town

In October 1995, the Tory government of Ontario Premier Mike Harris had only been in power four months. Their “Common Sense Revolution” of gutting the social safety net, privatization, and union busting was unrolling at a rapid speed. Their business class supporters were delighted, but a popular opposition was growing with ten thousand marching on the legislature when it opened in late September 1995. When Harris announced he was holding a party fundraiser in Kingston on October 11, hundreds prepared to welcome him.

The popular anger drew on the unprecedented scale of the attacks never before seen in Ontario’s history. On October 1, social assistance rates were slashed by 21.6 percent. Bill 7 was being rammed through to rollback union and labour rights to the 1950s. Tens of thousands of affordable and co-operative housing units in planning stages were cancelled. All provincial aid to municipal transit systems was frozen, and 13,000 Ontario Public Service jobs were on the chopping block.

Within six weeks of the election he had already broken his big promise of no healthcare cuts. A month earlier, a recording of Minister of Education John Snobelen explaining to top government bureaucrats the need to “create a crisis” in education revealed to the public a strategy of driving down public confidence in teachers and public education, so as to justify massive education cuts and radical restructuring favouring cabinet control over local school boards.

The Rise of Mike Harris

If the Common Sense Revolution was so vicious, why did 44 percent of voters choose the Tories?

As of 1995, Ontario was still locked in a brutal economic crisis that had started in 1990, a few months before the NDP was elected to office for the first time. An explosion of unemployment and poverty hit Ontario hard after a very long boom in the 1980s. Amidst economic crisis and political pressure from the business class, corporate media, and right-wing politicians the Ontario NDP government first abandoned or watered down its policies, and then capitulated to major austerity measures.

Prime Minister Mulroney’s squeezing of federal health and social program transfers also pushed Ontario down the path towards austerity. The length of the recession and Mulroney’s cuts to federal Unemployment Insurance threw more and more people on to the province’s welfare system.

To end the economic and political crisis, the Ontario PC Party and its leader Mike Harris promised a “Common Sense Revolution” that would make Ontario “Open for Business” by cutting back “job-killing” labour laws and regulations. The unemployed would be broken away from a “cycle of dependency” through workfare programs. To sell it all, Harris underwent rigorous coaching and media training, reinventing himself as a folksy “tough love” straight-shooter.

Harris promised a 30 percent income tax cut, no cuts to healthcare, “small government” and the end of deficits, which he blamed on the “socialist” NDP and unions. He labelled the NDP’s employment equity legislation (aka: affirmative action) a “quota law”, claiming it rewarded “special interests” over hard work and merit.

The Common Sense Revolution was a well-crafted political program that tapped into the widespread anger and despair at a failed economic system, and promised to lift Ontario out of a grinding downturn. It drew heavily upon the ideas and policies of Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in America, and was part of a Canadian neoconservatism expressed by Ralph Klein in Alberta and the new Reform Party of Preston Manning, precursor of Harper’s Conservatives.

Hard times for Kingston

Kingston, like much of Ontario, was caught in this perfect storm. Factories were hit hard in the recession, with big plants like Alcan and DuPont slashing hundreds of jobs.

In early 1995, a number of Kingstonians travelled to Oshawa, joining 15,000 people lining up for a few dozen job openings at the General Motors plant. Another 3,000 people went to a factory jobs fair in Belleville.

In Kingston, Corrections Canada had received three thousand applications for a hundred job openings, while St. Lawrence College had received 547 applications for fifty positions in the correctional worker program.

Meanwhile, the city’s federal public service jobs was squeezed by the Mulroney Tories and again with the Chretien Liberals. Now the Harris Tories was promising 13,000 job cuts among the 70,000 members of the Ontario Public Service. As a regional centre for provincial services, hundreds more local jobs were on the line.

Like everywhere else in Ontario, the long jobs recession meant more and more Kingstonians turned social assistance. Mulroney’s restrictions to Unemployment Insurance were becoming deep, and only got much worse in 1995 under the Chretien Liberals. Harris’s elimination of affordable and co-op housing programs also deepened Kingston’s long-standing housing problems.

Welcoming Harris

After five years of hard times, things were now getting worse for millions of people with the big cuts to welfare, jobs and services.

When it was announced that Harris was coming to Kingston on October 11, hundreds of Kingstonians jumped at the opportunity to show how they felt. A large number of local groups agreed to organize a protest rally at Lake Ontario Park, just across from the Cataraqui Golf and Country Club where the Premier’s fundraiser would be hosted.

Some of the groups involved were the Low-Income Needs Coalition, Kingston & District Labour Council, and unions like CUPE, CAW, OPSEU, PSAC. There were student organization like Students Against Harris, Kingston Socialists, and the Ontario Public Interest Research Group.

The prospects of a large turnout were good. Anti-poverty activists had already been canvassing social housing and low-income neighbourhoods, and union members were spreading the word in their workplaces. There were also over a hundred Kingstonians who had been to Toronto on September 27 to join ten thousand others in a raucous Queen’s Park protest marking the opening of the new legislature.

On September 30, another thirty people picketed the Kingston City Hall welfare offices. With the passage of the welfare cuts on October 1, public anger was mounting. On October 6, Premier Harris was pelted with eggs by jeering protesters while tapping the kegs at Kitchener’s Oktoberfest.

Speaking to the Whig-Standard, local OPSEU leader Warren “Smokey” Thomas said the Lake Ontario Park protest would be non-violent. “We’ll make lots of noise and then we’ll go home. We’re not advocating violence.” Thomas also said that OPSEU members would not cross King Street to march on the Cataraqui Golf and Country Club.

As for Harris, he was arriving in Kingston to help replenish his party’s coffers after the election and thank them for their support. About 150 guests paid $150 per plate to attend. Harris was the keynote speaker and joining him were six other MPPs, including Solicitor-General Bob Runciman of Brockville.

The protest

In the early evening of Wednesday, October 11, about five hundred people gathered at Lake Ontario Park, with some protesters already on the other side of King Street. 

Many families were present, and one group of children carried signs reading “I don’t like tuna.” Only days earlier, the Minister of Community and Social Services David Tsubouchi had suggested welfare recipients cut food costs by haggling over dented tuna cans at grocery stores.

The big crowd did not stay at Lake Ontario Park for long, and began marching across King Street and towards the entrance of the Country Club and blockade Harris’s supporters from entering.

As the crowd reached the Club, some determined protesters moved towards the main entrance. Fifteen Kingston police in riot gear stood inside the main doors.

As people reached the doors and refused to move, the police began cracking the doors to pepper spray the protesters. The protesters began pushing back against the doors, at which point a melee ensued.

Eggs sailed towards the police, and splattered the club’s entrance, and windows were broken in the chaos. There was shouting, swearing, shattering glass, and the racket of pots and pans as people pressed against one another, limbs flailed, and pepper spray was unleashed.

Some protesters were determined to ruin the evening for the Tory faithful inside, who, according to one Whig-Standard reporter, “sipped wine and listened to a string quartet.” The diners inside could hear the racket of protesters banging pots and pans.

As the melee at the doors reached a stalemate, the club began to fill with smoke, a panic among the well-dressed party donors. An enterprising protester had climbed on to the roof and lit some paper on fire by an air intake. The fire department was called, adding to the mayhem.

From start to finish, the entire protest lasted for two hours before dwindling down.

During the entire action, Mike Harris was secretly huddled in a car in the parking lot, his speech delayed by three hours. After the protesters had left, Harris finally entered the Club to cheers of “Mike! Mike! Mike!”

Prominent Kingston businessmen, landlords, politicians, and professionals got to their feet to toast their man at Queen’s Park. Harris made his usual speech saying protesters were afraid of “real change”, and joked that his Solicitor-General Runciman organizing the protest to justify more police funding.

As Kingston’s elites gulped back their dinners for the cause of PC Party bank accounts, another fundraising dinner was held in Kingston. A “People First Community Dinner” was held where donations went directly to a local food bank and a free clothing outlet to help the growing ranks of Kingston’s poor.


The protest had some “respectable” Kingstonians in performing a temper tantrum in public. The Whig-Standard’s resident right-wing columnist Steve Lukits lectured readers about the “goons” who had committed something “perverse and wrong”.

In a letter to the paper, a local lawyer friendly to the Ontario PC Party claimed his 74-year-old father was punched, kicked, and egged by protesters. He believed the “unruly horde indicates a breakdown in society and in our traditions as a society.”

The Kingston Police claimd their officers, country club staff, and a television reporter were assaulted by protesters. To prove this, they obtained a warrant to seize videotapes of the protest from local news station CKWS. These claims of protester violence amounted to nothing. No charges were ever laid against any protesters.

Protesters and their supporters defended themselves. Shaun Maxwell responded by saying “I don’t care if I get a criminal record for doing this because I don’t think we should follow unjust laws.”

Jamie Swift, a local writer and researcher, described the protest as one of the most diverse he had seen in Kingston, and described the initial rally at Lake Ontario Park as very exciting. 

“The crucial thing was not the violence that later occurred,” argued Swift. “It was the fact that people saw each other not through the lens of a Betacam unit while they sat at home, but making common cause together and sharing their heartfelt concerns about the direction of their country, their province, their city.”

The protest against Harris at the Cataraqui Golf and Country Club was one of the many protests in Kingston against the Common Sense Revolution.

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