How the premier of Ontario made himself irrelevant

OPINION: Having delayed taking action for so long, Doug Ford now finds himself with few options to alter the course of this nightmare
By Matt Gurney - Published on Apr 22, 2021
Premier Doug Ford at a press conference at Queen's Park on April 16. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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If we strip away all the sideshows and diversions, there are three stories that matter in Ontario’s third-wave response today. They matter more than the premier’s obvious emotional struggle as he faced voters for the first time in nearly a week — via a video press conference from isolation at his late mother’s Etobicoke home — to apologize for the mistakes his government made during the chaotic past six days. The premier’s state of mind is important. But it’s not in the top three issues right now.

The first issue, of course, is the sick-leave plan the province says it’s now working on, in the latest of its many retreats. What will the details be? How quickly can it be rolled out? Will it function as intended? Will it end up accomplishing anything before the increasing volume of arriving vaccines slowly and painfully gets us out of this mess? There is no answer I can offer for any of this; in general, having seen Canadian governments, and this particular provincial government, in action throughout the pandemic, I’d bet on the low-side outcome on every metric. But time will tell. The Ontario government, its political capital exhausted and, it would seem, its spirit broken, has given in on this last stubbornly held line. Now we’ll see what it actually comes up with.

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The second issue remains the hospitals. There isn’t much more that can be said there that hasn’t been said already. There is enormous pressure on the system. What help can be sent has been sent; it’s not clear there’s much more help coming. Anything other provinces could send would be gratefully received but, given the scale of the challenge in Ontario, won’t likely prove material. I find myself saying this over and over again these days, but it’s the truest articulation of our reality that I’ve come up with: we are so deep into this crisis that the only way out is through. How painful it will be isn’t yet known, but it’s likely already been determined. As above, we just have to wait and see.

The third issue that matters today is the best news of all. The vaccine outlook is improving. Ontario’s daily vaccinations are increasing. There’s still a frustrating lull on the weekends, but there has been steady, measurable progress. Lowering the age eligibility for AstraZeneca seems to have had the desired effect. The 40-plus cohort is turning out with enthusiasm to get their jabs. Meanwhile, despite continuing problems with Moderna’s production and deliveries, the Pfizer vaccines are arriving regularly and in greater amounts than expected — more than enough to offset the Moderna shortfall.

Earlier this week, Joe Biden, president of the United States, spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and hinted that more help would be coming from our family to the south — the Americans have huge stockpiles of AstraZeneca they have not yet approved for us and are not likely to need. We could get by quite nicely with a little help from our friends if we’re able to tap even a part of that U.S. reserve; the increasing Pfizer deliveries and a possible surge in AstraZeneca from the U.S., not to mention the hoped-for arrival of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, will hopefully let us keep up — even with the increased burn rate of vaccines as age eligibility keeps dropping. (And if we could drop it down to 38, by the way, that would be amazing.)

None of this is as exciting as Ford bursting into tears on live TV. But these are the actual issues that matter, right now, today, to Ontarians. And astute readers will have noticed how little Ford himself will have to do with any of them.

The exception is obviously the sick-leave plan his government says it will soon come up with. Ford will clearly have some influence on that score (or one would expect him to, at any rate). But that’s also the one that will matter least in the short term. For all the talk we’ve had of the importance of paid sick leave, it will take time to craft the policy and roll it out, and it’s probably going to begin making a difference only once it’s too late to matter during this third wave. It’s the other two policies above, the hospitals and the vaccines, that will make or break these next few weeks for us. And those are where Ford can make the least difference.

Indeed, even beyond his current problems, we’ve been seeing for some time already signs that the provincial government is being cut out of the loop. I limited myself above to things I thought mattered imminently, in the here and now, but if I loosened my own criteria up even just a tiny bit, I’d add a fourth item to my list of things that currently do or recently have mattered: the growing willingness of local public-health officials to use their legal powers to take action the provincial government is unwilling to take.

We saw this weeks ago when first Peel and then Toronto chose to shut the schools; the province shut the schools down everywhere shortly thereafter. We saw it again in recent days when, yet again, Peel and then Toronto began issuing orders to shut down work sites with COVID-19 outbreaks; the province finally said it would roll out paid sick leave. (It’s hard to tell what the greater driver was for that decision: the prospect of potentially thousands of workers losing income due to local orders without any provincial aid, or the government’s own political crisis, but it was undoubtedly some mixture of both.)

In the current moment, there’s damn little Ford can do. All that can be done is being done by others. Ford, having delayed so long on taking any number of actions, now finds himself with little more he can do. His ability to alter the course of this nightmare has, at least for the moment, evaporated. It didn’t have to be this way, on so many levels. But Ford’s decisions brought him here, and the rest of us along with him. And now we wait for the vaccines — and hope the hospitals can hold on.

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