What’s ON: The week that was in Ontario politics (December 6-10)

More booster shots, rapid-testing controversy, and fighting U.S. protectionism
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Dec 10, 2021
Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore announced Friday new measures the provincial government was taking in response to COVID-19. (Chris Young/CP)

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Every Friday, TVO.org provides a summary of the most notable developments in Ontario politics over the past week.

Here’s what caught our attention:

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COVID-19: In response to rising case numbers and the Omicron variant, the province announced tougher public health measures Friday afternoon. They include expanding boosters for everyone 18 and older starting on Jan. 4; also as of Jan. 4, requiring the use of the enhanced vaccine certificate with QR code to access places where proof-of-vaccination is needed; clamping down on questionable medical exemptions; and requiring any children between the age of 12 and 17 to show proof of vaccination to participate in sports or other recreational activities as of Dec. 20. Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore said the Omicron strain now represents 10 per cent of new infections in the province, and there could be a "complete strain replacement" in Ontario as early as the beginning of January.

Rapid testing: Premier Doug Ford was forced to fend off growing criticism this week that the province is not distributing enough rapid tests to help people find out if they’re sick with COVID-19. "There's no one that's handing out more tests than we are,” Ford said Wednesday. “Matter of fact, we're doing 57 per cent of all rapid tests in the entire country.” But opposition politicians and some experts are saying the province needs share tests even more broadly, rather than limiting them to businesses, some schools, and people who have already come into contact with someone with the virus. “Let people take a rapid test before visiting with loved ones,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said. “Encourage people take a rapid test at the first signs of a cold." On Thursday, the province’s science advisory table announced it was recommending that elementary students should be tested with a rapid antigen screening test once per week in areas where there are 35 or more weekly cases per 100,000 people. Currently, most parts of the province meet that threshold.

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Sick days: The province announced Tuesday that it is extending its paid sick leave program until July 31, 2022. The program, put in place in response to the pandemic, offers up to three paid sick days per employee. It was set to expire at the end of this month. “I will make sure that workers have paid sick days throughout this entire pandemic,” Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said. “I'll keep my word on that and we'll have more to say soon."

Gig economy: Labour Minister McNaughton also said this week that province is considering designating so-called gig-economy workers as “dependent contractors” to give them basic employment rights and benefits. Currently, ride-hailing and delivery companies say those who seek work through their online apps are “independent contractors” who are not entitled to benefits and other employee protections. “My message to Uber, to Skip The Dishes, to these gig companies, if they're not going to look after their workers, then we'll take action to ensure that those workers are protected,” McNaughton told CTV News. But in a statement, the NDP argued creating a dependent contractor category would actually make it easier for companies “to treat their workers as non-employees, unworthy of full employment rights.”

Buy American: If you’d told me back in 2018 that this would happen, I wouldn’t have believed you: Premier Ford has appointed labour leader Jerry Dias to head a new government advisory committee. The committee’s job is to figure out how to respond to protectionist sentiment in the U.S. Dias is the head of Unifor, a union that represents a lot of auto workers at a time when a bill before Congress threatens to significantly hurt the Ontario automotive industry. “I didn’t exactly graduate from charm school last week,” Dias said Thursday. “So I think the government realizes that I’m aggressive, and I will be aggressive, and frankly we will do whatever is necessary to protect the jobs in this province.”

No conflict: The province’s integrity commissioner said Thursday he could not find evidence that Premier Doug Ford was unduly influenced by developers who donated to his party when he made decisions regarding the Bradford Bypass, a new road which will connect Highways 400 and 404 north of Toronto. Commissioner David J. Wake was asked to examine the matter after questions were raised by the Toronto Star and National Observer. But he found there were insufficient grounds for an investigation. Wake said he will issue a separate report as to whether Transportation Minister and Associate Transportation Minister Stan Cho have any conflicts over the project.

Laurentian bankruptcy: MPPs took the unusual move Thursday to authorize the Speaker to issue a warrant for documents related to Laurentian University’s financial collapse earlier this year. The documents are sought by the legislature’s standing committee on public accounts, which has asked Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk to do a value-for-money audit. Laurentian is arguing it can’t hand over the documents because it could jeopardize court proceedings related to its decision to seek creditor protection.

Child care: According to the Toronto Star, New Brunswick has come to an agreement with the federal government on a $10-a-day child-care program. That would make Ontario the only province still without a deal. On Friday, Premier Ford released a letter sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying he was "personally encouraged" by negotiations underway on a child care deal, and that he is looking forward to reaching an agreement "that benefits Ontario families soon.”

Election ads: Ontario Superior Court Justice Ed Morgan has ruled that the limits placed on third-party advertising by the Ford government are legal. The restrictions had been challenged by a coalition of labour groups, arguing they restricted the right to vote by limiting the ability of third parties to share information on matters of public policy in the year ahead of an election. But Morgan disagreed, finding the rules still allow for participation in campaigns.

Natyshak out: NDP MPP Taras Natyshak announced Friday he will not be seeking re-election. “This choice is bittersweet. I fully believe Andrea Horwath will be elected premier in 2022,” he said. Natyshak has represented the southwestern Ontario riding of Essex since 2011. According to Laura Stone of the Globe and Mail, the riding has been heavily targeted by the Progressive Conservatives in the upcoming June election.

Online gambling: Industry sources have told the Toronto Star that Ontario’s new online gambling market is being delayed until mid-February. The market, which will allow private companies to offer online betting services, was supposed to open this month. But the sources who spoke to the Star say bureaucratic delays have forced the province to push the launch date back. The market is an attempt by the province to impose some rules on the often poorly-regulated online-gambling industry while bringing in more tax revenue. Until the market opens, Ontarians can still gamble and place bets online via the provincially-owned Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation.

That’s a wrap: Thursday was the last day MPPs will sit in the legislature until February 22. As such, a flurry of bills were passed this week ahead of the winter break. Some pieces of legislation to receive royal assent yesterday include the Build Ontario Act, which contained the measures announced in Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy’s fall economic update; Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips’ Providing More Care, Protecting Seniors, and Building More Beds Act; PC MPP for Don Valley North Vincent Ke’s Anti-Asian Racism Education Month Act; the Polish Heritage Month Act, sponsored by PC MPP for Etobicoke—Lakeshore Christine Hogarth and PC MPP for Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke John Yakabuski; and the Emancipation Month Act, sponsored by members from all four political parties: PC MPP for Barrie—Innisfil Andrea Khanjin, NDP MPP for Kitchener Centre Laura Mae Lindo, Liberal MPP for Scarborough—Guildwood Mitzie Hunter, and Green MPP for Guelph Mike Schreiner.

More Ontario politics coverage on TVO

#onpoli podcast: Fallout from the auditor general's report

Starting Monday, December 13, anyone 50 or older who is six months out from their initial Covid-19 vaccines will be eligible for a third dose. But with Omicron here in the province, why is the government going by age rather than initial vaccine date? Also, the latest from the fallout of the auditor general's report. And, the Progressive Conservatives do a 180 on electric-vehicle charging stations.

I tried (and failed) to buy a rapid test so you don’t have to

While the province says it deploys a million of the coveted tests each week, Matt Gurney had to shop around to find one. He recounts his epic journey through various drug stores and websites.

How much will climate change cost Ontario? Even given the unknowns, the numbers are big

A new report analyzes do-nothing, reactive, and proactive approaches to adapting provincial infrastructure. The lessons should be pretty clear, John Michael McGrath writes.

20 months later, our governments still haven’t figured this out

Matt Gurney argues both the federal government and the province are screwing up the COVID-19 response, and neither has any excuse.

No one knows whether Ontario’s Growth Plan works — including the government

The idea is to make cities plan denser, more transit-friendly development. Is that happening? Ontario doesn’t seem to want to find out, according to John Michael McGrath.

Beyond the Pink Palace

Migrant workers: A DNA sweep from 96 migrant workers helped the OPP catch a criminal — but did it violate innocent workers’ human rights? Ashley Okwuosa, TVO.org Ontario Hubs reporter for diversity and inclusion, tells the story of what happened and what’s at stake in a case before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

Food prices: Ontarians can expect to pay noticeably more at the grocery store and restaurants next year. According to Canada's Food Price Report, published by the University of Guelph and Dalhousie University, a typical Canadian family of four is projected to spend $14,767 to feed themselves in 2022 – up $966 dollars from this year. Factors pushing food costs higher include a hot summer on the prairies that hurt crops there, and increased costs for inputs such as feed, energy, and fertilizer for dairy farmers.

Toronto’s mayor: John Tory has told friends he’ll decide by year’s end whether to seek a third term as mayor of Ontario’s largest city. Steve Paikin writes about what factors Tory is considering, and offers his prediction as to what the mayor will ultimately decide.  

Ottawa’s mayor: Jim Watson has already made his decision: He’s out. Watson, a former Ontario cabinet minister serving his third term as mayor of the nation’s capital, announced Friday he would not be running for re-election. There are several people already potentially interested in the job, including another former Liberal cabinet minister: Bob Chiarelli, who already served as mayor from 2001 to 2006 and who actually succeeded Watson as MPP for Ottawa West—Nepean in 2010.

Omicron at the border: TVO.org Ontario Hubs reporter for Hamilton-Niagara Justin Chandler talks to Niagara’s acting medical officer of health about how the Omicron variant is more likely to come from the U.S. than southern Africa, and why he thinks Ontario needs a province-wide approach to this latest public health threat.

3D-printed homes: Yes, you read that right. Josh Sherman reports on how a non-profit partnership and a robot that squirts grey goo are turning southwestern Ontario into a testing ground for new housing tech.

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