Ontario Premier Mike Harris announces he will resign

Tuesday, October 16, 2001

Associated Press WriterTORONTO (AP) -- Ontario Premier Mike Harris, who heads the government of Canada's most populous province, said Tuesday he would resign before his term ends.

Facing a loss of popularity after six years in power and seeking a reconciliation with his estranged wife, Harris said he wanted to concentrate on his personal life.

Nicknamed "Chainsaw" when he first became premier in 1995 for budget-cutting policies that became a national trend, Harris has faced controversy in the past 17 months over tainted water that killed seven people in Walkerton, Ontario.

Critics blame his spending cuts, which privatized water treatment and other government services, for the breakdown that allowed E. coli bacteria to contaminate the Walkerton water supply in May 2000, sickening more than 2,000 people.

Harris also is accused of ordering a police crackdown on Indian protesters at a provincial park in 1995, leading to the shooting death of one protester. He has denied telling police what to do, but court documents made public in recent weeks showed he met with senior police officials shortly before a police officer shot the protester to death.

Media reports that Harris intended to step down emerged Monday. Harris refused to confirm or deny the reports when questioned by journalists Monday night.

The Toronto Star newspaper quoted an unidentified source as saying Harris "doesn't want to be in politics any more."

Harris met with his Ontario legislative caucus on Tuesday and announced he would resign before flying to New York to visit the World Trade Center site and meet with Gov. George Pataki.

Contenders to succeed Harris as Conservative Party leader in Ontario, and therefore as premier, include provincial Health Minister Tony Clement, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Education Minister Janet Ecker, Environment Minister Elizabeth Witmer and Municipal Affairs Minister Chris Hodgson.

A party convention to choose a new leader was expected to take months to organize. The next Ontario provincial election must be held by the end of 2003.

Harris led the Conservatives to power in 1995, winning 82 seats in the 130-seat Ontario legislature on a platform of tax and spending cuts called the "common sense revolution."

His program included a 22 percent cut in welfare rates, reducing the size of school boards and closing hospitals. His governments also cut the environment ministry budget by 44 percent, reducing the staff by 50 percent, or 1,400 people.

Labor protests, including repeated teachers' strikes, and violent demonstrations by anti-poverty groups resulted.

Despite the protests, Harris led the Conservatives to a second majority victory in 1999 by sticking to his core issues of tax cuts and more welfare reform. A major issue was his government's plan to make welfare recipients undergo mandatory drug testing and literacy tests.

Recent opinion polls and by-election results show support for the Ontario Conservatives slipping.

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