Ontario Premier Doug Ford says the Progressive Conservative caucus remains “united” and is “sticking together” following the announcement early Thursday morning that rookie Ottawa-area MPP Amanda Simard has quit to sit as an independent.
“Our team is more united than it’s ever been — ever,” Ford said Thursday morning when confronted by reporters at Queen’s Park. “Again, we stick together. You know, we’re united. Solid, solid, united.”
Ford said the mood inside the PC caucus remains “positive.”
“It was positive, united and we’re a strong, strong team and we look forward to changing the province and getting people prosperity,” he said.
Simard, who represents the Ontario riding of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, sent a letter to House Speaker Ted Arnott Thursday morning confirming her resignation.
“I would like to advise you that, effective immediately, I am no longer a member of the Progressive Conservative caucus,” Simard wrote. “I will continue to take my place in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario as an independent.”
The government’s decisions to cancel a planned French-language university and scrap the office of the French-language services commissioner drew criticism from some of Ontario’s 600,000 francophones, as well as Quebec’s political class, media pundits and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In a Facebook post last Wednesday, the rookie MPP, who was as a parliamentary assistant under the minister responsible for francophone affairs, Caroline Mulroney, said she had worked internally to have the decisions reversed, including asking Ford himself to reconsider, but was unsuccessful.
Simard, whose riding is mainly French-speaking, broke ranks with her party again Wednesday in supporting a non-binding NDP motion to overturn the measures.
“The government’s proposals since this initial announcement amount to one step forward but three steps back. If we make this kind of concession, there will be nothing left in a few years,” an emotional Simard said in French in the legislature.
Government House Leader Todd Smith said the caucus was disappointed by Simard’s departure.
“We received a letter just after seven o’clock this morning informing us that she was resigning from our caucus and was planning to sit as an independent,” Smith said.
“We had scheduled a caucus meeting today. As you know, she didn’t attend our caucus meeting on Tuesday either. Disappointing that she has decided to leave the caucus but our team is united.”
Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod said she was also disappointed with Simard’s decision but wished her well as an independent.
“I know many members of our government reached out to her, she chose not to take them up on those offers,” she said. “But let me be perfectly clear, she voted against a budget bill, the fall economic statement, that’s pretty serious.”
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Mulroney maintains her government hasn’t given up on building a francophone university, but that a delay is necessary due to financial constraints.
“We are going to continue to work on the project for the university,” she said.
“I know they are upset. We’re all upset that the Liberals left us with a $15-billion deficit and almost $350 billion in debt. There are a lot of projects we would like to see go ahead.”
NDP legislator John Vanthof said Ford downplayed the importance of Franco-Ontarians, noting they make up close to five per cent of the province’s population, not three.
“This premier does not understand francophones and he doesn’t respect francophones,” he said.
Vanthof said Simard had not approached New Democrats about joining them and was not aware of any attempts by the party to reach out to her.
Liberal legislator and former premier Kathleen Wynne said Simard had gone through a very difficult time and taken bold action on behalf of her constituents.
“It took a lot of courage for her to stand up yesterday in the legislature, it’s taken a lot of courage for her to leave what is her political family and my heart goes out to her,” Wynne said.
“That situation is one that the government has brought upon itself because I don’t think anyone, including this young MPP Amanda Simard, expected that the government would declare war on the francophone population in Ontario.”
Asked whether the Liberals would try to recruit Simard, Wynne said neither she nor her colleagues have had that conversation with the newly independent legislator, but added they are open to those who want to work with them.
Simard’s new status stirred some concerns in Russell, the eastern Ontario community where she served as a city councillor before joining the Tory roster under then-leader Patrick Brown.
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“She might not be as strong a voice municipally at Queen’s Park,” said Russell’s mayor, Pierre Leroux. “But I think what she has done is, even though her voice will maybe not carry as much weight at Queen’s Park, she has lit a match in the Franco-Ontario community. Their voice is just going to be louder because of this.”
The Assemblee de la francophonie de l’Ontario, an organization representing Franco-Ontarians, said it respects Simard’s decision to break away from the government.
“Ms. Simard is a principled person who has a right to manage her political future. We thank her for being a friend of Ontario’s francophone community,” the group said on Twitter.
Simard served as a city councillor in the community of Russell before joining the Tory roster under then-leader Patrick Brown. She holds a law degree from the University of Ottawa and previously worked on Parliament Hill as a policy adviser.
— With files from the Canadian Press