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Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley Shares Insights on His Seven-Year Term

Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley Shares Insights on His Seven-Year Term

Speakers’ Spotlight is pleased to welcome Former Lieutenant Governor, The Honourable David C. Onley, to our roster. As Ontario’s first Lieutenant Governor with a physical disability, Onley adopted accessibility as the overarching theme of his mandate. Defining accessibility as “that which enables people to achieve their full potential,” and believing that true accessibility occurs only when disabled people can completely participate in all aspects of social, cultural, and economic life, Onley shares the leadership lessons he’s learned from his experience at one of the top echelons of government, as well as his message of human rights for all. In this article in The Globe and Mail, Onley reflects on his term in government:

On a mid-October weekend in 2012, Lieutenant-Governor David Onley got a fateful phone call: then-premier Dalton McGuinty wanted to meet with him first thing Monday morning.

Ontario’s viceroy didn’t wait to find out what the embattled premier wanted. He immediately hunkered down with constitutional experts to discuss what to do, and they kept talking the following morning before Mr. McGuinty came to see him.

By the time the premier dropped his bombshell – that he wanted parliament prorogued as his government faced a possible contempt charge from the opposition – Mr. Onley was ready. He granted Mr. McGuinty’s request. That night, the premier stunned the province by revealing the prorogation and announcing his resignation.

“When we had a call on the weekend that the premier wanted to meet with me first thing Monday morning, we had a pretty strong sense that something was up, and it was probably going to be prorogation,” Mr. Onley recalled, standing in the Music Room of his suite at Queen’s Park. “Discussions began at that very point, and actually continued on the following morning well before meeting with the premier. Then he then acted out his part, and I acted out mine.”

Mr. Onley revealed these details Monday at an unusually candid press conference on his final full day as lieutenant-governor, lifting a curtain on some of the most dramatic moments of his seven-year tenure.

He admitted, for instance, that he was nervous about the prospect of having to sort out a constitutional crisis after the June election. With the polls predicting a close finish, it seemed likely Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals would win a minority, only to have their budget rejected a second time by the legislature.

As the days counted down towards the election, the lieutenant-governor said, he thought often of the family Bible he kept in his top right drawer.

“There would have been a lot of praying and a lot of sweating,” he said.

While the Queen’s representatives typically serve in ceremonial functions – opening parliament, granting awards and greeting dignitaries – they also act as constitutional safeguards. Mr. Onley’s term, for instance, was extended from the standard five years specifically to ensure a seasoned hand was on the wheel in case there was a crisis in the last minority parliament.

Mr. Onley also used his tenure to urge progress on accessibility and employment for people with disabilities. He frequently made the case that employing differently abled people would be a benefit to the economy, as opposed to simply an act of altruism. On Monday, Mr. Onley said he was cheered that this message had caught on, pointing to the fact that the province had moved responsibility for making the province more accessible from the social services ministry to the economic development department.

“I feel like we’re on the deck of an aircraft carrier: We’ve been loading the plane up for seven years and we’ve just pushed the catapult button. It’s just launching itself down the runway of the flight deck and it’s only going to take a short time to accelerate,” he added.

Mr. Onley said he was also proud of his outreach and relationship-building with First Nations groups, including 23 visits his wife, Ruth Ann Onley, made to remote aboriginal communities in the province’s north.

A 64-year-old father of three, Mr. Onley became famous as a reporter, anchor and personality for CFRB, Citytv and CP24. He was appointed lieutenant-governor in 2007, a little more than a month before that year’s election.

After Mr. McGuinty’s Liberals were cut down to a minority in 2011, the legislature became tense. The Progressive Conservatives brought forward a contempt of parliament motion, accusing the Liberals of withholding information on the controversial cancellations of two gas-fired power plants.

As the pressure mounted in the house, Mr. McGuinty made his surprising move. The prorogation angered the opposition.

But Mr. Onley said that, from his point of view, there was only one choice to be made.

“The viceregal officer is not the constitutional advisor to the premier. It’s the other way around,” he said. “So, when the premier comes in and says ‘I want to do this,’ it’s not illegal, it’s not unconstitutional. Since it’s neither of those, he or she has the perfect right to make that request and at that point it’s pretty much the obligation of the viceroy to accede.”

Mr. Onley nearly faced an even tougher situation last June. The polls showed Ms. Wynne’s Liberals and Mr. Hudak’s Tories nearly tied. The lieutenant-governor gathered his constitutional experts again to discuss options.

If Ms. Wynne had returned with a minority and had her budget defeated a second time, Mr. Onley said, it would have been “completely unprecedented.”

“Even as I met with the constitutional advisers in the days and weeks ahead of that, we were very, very aware that we were potentially going into very unusual territory,” he said.

On election night, Mr. Onley sat at his Scarborough home watching the results and exchanging a flurry of text messages and emails with his advisers. By mid-evening, it became clear Ms. Wynne would take a majority, and any constitutional crisis had been averted. Mr. Onley heaved a sigh of relief, then went to bed.

But what if there had been a minority, and the nightmare scenario Mr. Onley contemplated had played out? What would he have done?

Mr. Onley made it clear that, even with four months’ distance, there were some cards he would keep close to the vest.

“Well, we always had a secret plan in the back of our minds and that if it was a really, really tight election, we were going to leave on all the lights [in Queen’s Park], but then sneak out of the building and go through the tunnels,” he joked. “So you guys would think we were here all night.”

By Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail/September, 2014