By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
New MPPs are returning to Queen’s Park a little earlier than usual.
The newly elected Progressive Conservative majority government under Premier Doug Ford recalled the Legislature this month instead of its usual September start in order to deal with what the party has described as urgent matters.
For Oshawa’s MPP Jennifer French, it’s a return to a seat she has held since 2014, and one she regained after a close election battle with PC candidate and former regional/city councillor Bob Chapman.
However, looking at the makeup inside Queen’s Park, it will appear remarkably different when French returns, as she and the rest of the Official Opposition NDP will be staring across the floor at a daunting 76-seat, majority PC government.
“I’m ever the optimist, (but) sitting across from a 76 seat majority is going to be quite something,” French says. “But, we’re the largest Official Opposition since 1985 and we’re drawing from diverse, active community ranks.”
Already, Ford has made good on some of the pre-election promises he made to the people of Ontario, including scrapping the Green Ontario Fund, which supplied rebates to citizens and businesses who upgraded inefficient energy systems to more environmentally-friendly options. The program was funded with $377 million from Ontario’s cap-and-trade program, and is one of Ford’s first steps in dismantling the program, a move that has been criticized by both the Green Party, represented by lone MPP Mike Schreiner, representing the riding of Guelph, and the NDP.
With that aside, French realizes there will be more to the position the NDP now finds itself in.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a matter of criticizing the government. I think it’s going to be doing the job the best way we can, which is also pushing the government and continuing to be that opposition and a bit of a challenge to them to be the best version of themselves as well,” she says. “We should all remember that everyone in that room was just trusted with the job of representing their local community, regardless of party. At the end of the Queen’s Park week, all of us are in our communities and not just have to answer to our communities, but ensure that they are represented.”
Inside the Oshawa Curling Club on June 7, the atmosphere was tense and quiet, as if a horrible secret was being whispered from ear to ear of French’s supporters, all their eyes glued to the large projector screen against the far wall.
Displayed there was the ever growing PC majority government, a trend that was clear from the start that the Liberals were about to be crushed under the blue wave.
And that wave swept through much of Durham Region as well, as PCs took Ajax (Rod Phillips), Pickering-Uxbridge (Peter Bethlenfalvy), Durham (Lindsey Park), and Whitby (Lorne Coe).
However, there was one orange square that refused to fade away.
The riding results trickled across the bottom, and each time French’s name appeared, it illicited a string of shouts and claps from the crowd as her lead over PC candidate Chapman slowly grew.
“It was interesting to watch it unfold,” French says, who took in the results down the street from her supporters. “I was in the campaign office watching it poll by poll coming in, so it was a bit nerve wracking, because it was a very different election than four years ago.”
At that time, French, a teacher turned politician, was staring down long-time PC MPP Jerry Ouellette, who had held the post since 1995. However, French was able to capture nearly 47 per cent of the vote. This time around, things were slightly different as the PCs made up some ground, allowing French to collect 44 per cent.
“It was certainly a blue wave in this part of Ontario so I’m glad that our office will have the chance to continue to support the way we’ve been supporting,” French says.
And the way they’ve been supporting is through a fairly open-door policy when it comes to visitors at French’s downtown Oshawa constituency office. Oshawa residents continually visit with issues they are facing, whether it’s for assistance in navigating the Ontario Disability Support Program, questions about their hydro bills, or any number of things, French’s door has been open for the better part of four years.
It’s part of the job she is looking forward to getting back to the most.
“That’s the authentic piece, it’s not just about heading into the next election, it’s heading back into the Legislature with a whole bucket of legitimate concerns and local pieces,” she says.
A few of those pieces French has taken hold of and pushed for serious change, including her work on drafting the Brunt and Kendall Act, a piece of legislation aimed at creating rules and regulations around private training courses for firefighter trainees, and her efforts to level the playing field for autoworkers in terms of leave days with the Fairness in the Auto Sector Act.
“It’s been interesting because in four years, every person that comes through the door takes you into a different part of the government, and it all matters,” she says.
Moving forward, she says there are already a number of items that could prove to be items the public will see her champion in the years ahead, but she kept mum on just what those are.
“There are some things that came up in the community, not just at the doorstep, but just conversations as you’re meeting with so many people that have planted seeds for some local private members’ bills,” she says.
During her time at Queen’s Park, French has had a diverse knowledge base when it came to her portfolios.
Starting in June of 2014, French took on the role of critic for pensions, a generally quiet portfolio. That was, until the Liberals introduced the eventually scrapped Ontario Retirement Pension Plan.
Following that French became a member of the Standing Committee on Regulations and Private Bills, and was critic for community safety and correctional services, during which she toured 17 of the province’s correctional facilities.
“I value that so much because it’s such an unusual opportunity, but it gave me real appreciation for how things fit, or rather don’t fit, across the justice system and across the jail and law enforcement and all those things,” she says.
In December 2016 she was moved to the dual role of critic for youth engagement while also being the critic for citizenship and immigration.
As it stands, the NDP shadow cabinet has yet to be announced, but French is leaving her options, and her mind, open.
“All of that remains to be seen. I will be glad to serve in any capacity because I will make it my own,” she says. “I will learn it and I will connect it to the community.”