Government emails obtained by CBC News shed new light on public anger over former premier Mike Harris’s controversial 2021 appointment to the Order of Ontario.
Established in 1986, the province’s highest honour is reserved for those whose “excellence has left a lasting legacy” in the fields of arts, education, business, law and public service, according to the Ministry of Sport, Tourism and Culture. Nominations are announced every New Year’s Day.
Harris, 76, was Conservative premier from 1995 to 2002. His agenda of sweeping change left a lasting legacy, but the nature of that legacy is still hotly debated by supporters and detractors alike, highlighting a political divide almost two decades later.
The emails released as part of a provincial freedom of information request by CBC News show public rancour after it was announced Harris was nominated for Ontario’s most prestigious award.
The names of the people who penned the letters were omitted by government officials for personal privacy reasons.
“I can’t believe that Mike Harris was given the order of Ontario,” one person said. “I could give a list of comments he made about the natives during the Ipperwash protests of the 90s.
“Shame on all of you for participating in this mockery of what is supposed to be an honour. The man doesn’t deserve it. Blatantly racist colonial cruelty. It never ends. What a start to 2021!”
Another person wrote: “I am totally disgusted that Mike Harris.. ..is receiving the Order of Ontario,” adding there are “far more deserving during a pandemic. Doctors, Nurses and PSW’s should be among the recipients.”
“I would like to express my anger over this selection,” said another person. “I can’t imagine why such a divisive premier would be selected for an honour that should recognize individuals that bring this province together and brings out the best in all of us. Mike Harris certainly did not do this.”
‘You devalue this honour by including Mike Harris’
“This is not right,” writes another person. “You devalue this honour by including Mike Harris [text redacted]. Is this just a platform for the Conservative Old Boys network to nominate their friends? Shame on the Ford government.”
While the emails illustrate some of the passionate opposition to Harris’s nomination, they don’t give a complete picture of what was happening behind the scenes in the selection process.
Most of the hundreds of pages of documents released as part of the freedom of information request were redacted by government officials. There were also emails from high-level bureaucrats outlining the concerns around “politically affiliated nominees” like Harris.
“The Order is to be kept non-partisan and transparent for the public,” Maria D’Addona, team lead for the Ontario Honours and Awards Secretariat, wrote in an email dated Oct. 27, 2020.
“Ensure that the [lieutenant governor] is not faced with embarrassment in any given situation,” she wrote, before telling the committee that Isabel Bassett, the CEO of TVOntario under Harris, “recused herself during the deliberations of [text redacted] Mike Harris.”
Long-term care controversy highlighted
It might be why government officials undertook a “media scan” for potential public relations trouble around Harris’s nomination in November 2020, emails from government officials indicate.
The emails included links to unflattering media coverage about the former premier on the thorny issue of long-term care during the pandemic, including a lengthy social media post that accuses Harris of making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year “from the long-term care sector he privatized.”
Documents released by the government show the former premier’s nomination was sent electronically on March 30, 2020, but do not indicate from whom for personal privacy reasons.
Few nominee choices in 2020
Emails also point to the fact the premier was named to the award in a year with fewer potential nominees, with one official writing by email that for 2020, “the number of nominations (94) received were much less than seen in the past.”
Also included in the document packet was a marking rubric for the Order of Ontario selection committee where names of potential nominees to the short list are scored out of five based on four categories: merit/achievement, testimonials, impact and innovation.
Harris’s scores and whether there was any debate about his nomination to Ontario’s highest honour were not included in the documents obtained by CBC News.
Government officials said those details are considered both cabinet records and advice to government, which are exempt from being released under the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
CBC News reached out to Harris through Chartwell Retirement Residences, a private company where he serves as chair of the board and Nurse Next Door, a private homecare company he and his wife Laura founded in 2012. He hadn’t responded at the time of publication.