Over the next four-plus months, in the lead-up to the next Ontario election, you’re going to hear plenty of nastiness as opposition politicians demonize not only the current provincial government but also one another. After all, the New Democrats, Liberals, and Greens (not to mention the New Blue and Ontario First parties) all want you to think of them as potential alternatives to the governing Progressive Conservatives.
So it’s particularly noteworthy that, for a couple of hours on Monday, all three main opposition parties sheathed their swords.
They assembled a virtual COVID-19 summit with a particular focus on how well our hospitals are handling the current tsunami of cases. (Spoiler alert: not very well. They’re overwhelmed.) Liberal leader Steven Del Duca, NDP health critic France Gélinas, and Green party candidate and doctor Marlene Spruyt (pronounced “Sprew-it”) were joined by many health-sector stakeholders as they considered alternatives to the way the government is currently handling the crisis.
It was a reprise of the “vaccine summit” the three parties mounted last August and a welcome respite from the unhelpful and often overheated rhetoric that passes for intelligent debate at Queen’s Park.
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The opposition parties even invited a representative from Doug Ford’s government to participate; alas, they declined.
“We didn’t put this event together to exclude the government,” Del Duca assured reporters in a post-summit Zoom call. “People want to see us working together.”
They do. I’ve often made the point that, when the premier talks about his “Team Ontario” approach, what he really means is his blue team. Yes, he’s said in the legislature that he’ll take good ideas wherever he can get them, even if they’re from the orange, red, or green teams. But he’s never (to my knowledge) gone so far as to share the microphone with any of the opposition parties, despite the potential positive influence all four of them singing from the same hymnbook could have.
One thing all the political leaders and stakeholders agreed on during the hospital summit was the need to repeal Bill 124, the province’s wage-restraint law, which was passed more than two years ago. The law attempts to hold most public-sector wage settlements to a 1 per cent increase, which, during normal times, when finance ministers have a worried eye on the deficit, may make good sense.
But, the summiteers pointed out, these are not normal times. And when you’re trying to encourage nurses, personal-support workers, hospital employees, nurse practitioners, and registered practical nurses not to quit their jobs because of burnout, it’s not a great idea to lavish them with praise while at the same time holding their wages to a tiny increase in a world where inflation is running at 5 per cent.
The group also points out that jobs dominated by men (police officers, firefighters, and medical doctors) aren’t covered by Bill 124, while those dominated by women are — and they’re getting the short end of the compensation stick.
“Nurses are being begged, please stick around, give us one more shift, but if you don’t top up their compensation, they’ll leave,” said Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario. “They’re simply being burned out.”
Gélinas also pointed out that, despite the terrible nursing crunch Ontario hospitals are now facing, there seems to be little effort to mobilize as many as 15,000 registered nurses trained in other jurisdictions to be licensed to work in Ontario. In that case, Gélinas said, the College of Nurses of Ontario, which regulates the profession, has been “extra slow.”
“How is this possible?” Grinspun asked. “The government should demand this be fixed.”
The other big issue the summit tackled is the deep unhappiness among so many that our schools are once again closed. “We’ve known for months what’s needed doing,” insisted Gélinas, who listed smaller classes, more rapid testing, and improved ventilation as things that should have been done months ago.
Spruyt wondered how it made any sense to close schools while allowing kids to congregate at local malls.
“Are kids in safe environments now?” asked Spruyt, the former medical officer of health for Timiskaming and Algoma and now the Greens’ candidate in Lanark–Frontenac–Kingston. “No. The best place for educational and social development is in school. And it’s a reasonably safe environment.”
With the anticipated delivery of thousands more HEPA filters and 600,000 N95 masks, the schools should be safer, soon.
“None of that is bad,” Del Duca said. “But it’d be good to know how many HEPA filters or masks are coming to my kids’ school. At the moment, there’s no way to know or track that.”
The Liberal leader would like to see parents be able to go online to learn exactly where those 600,000 masks end up. “Knowing that would make me feel more comfortable,” added Del Duca, who has two daughters, in grades 9 and 5, in the public-school system. “The government should track that progress, school by school, and get that information out to parents.”
Gélinas agreed. “There are many schools in Nickel Belt [her riding] needing ventilation,” she said. When the province simply announces the purchase of thousands of more HEPA filters, there’s no indication how many of them will end up in the north.
“It’s unacceptable we’re in this spot, almost two full years into this pandemic,” Del Duca added.
The tone of the summit actually sounded quite constructive. I wouldn’t be so naïve as to say that criticizing the government wasn’t part of the narrative. Let’s also acknowledge that the political parties selected only participants whose suggestions aligned with their own ideologies. The focus on hospitals being the one-stop shop for procedures that could be done elsewhere may also be problematic. There’s also the issue of the 4,000 nurses in Ontario alone who are working as care coordinators, with very good salaries, and not providing front-line care. The unions want those positions maintained.
But those criticisms notwithstanding, the opposition members and stakeholders sounded more interested in having the government steal and implement their ideas than in using them to beat the Tories up with.
To be sure, in the months ahead, the rhetoric will once again overheat, and these same groups will go back to blasting one another. But for one January morning, it was good to see more collaboration than confrontation.