What’s ON: The week that was in Ontario politics (January 3-7)

Schools update, new business grants, and cheaper electricity
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Jan 07, 2022
Premier Doug Ford returns to his office following a news conference on Jan. 3 where he announced schools would be closed until at least Jan. 17 (Chris Young/CP)



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

Here’s what caught our attention:

Queen’s Park keywords

Schools: Government insiders have told the Toronto Star that elementary schools will likely be kept closed longer than high schools. The reason? Many high schoolers already have two doses of vaccine, while those in lower grades are still in the process of getting vaccinated. A source said “we could see high schools reopening for fully vaccinated students on Jan. 17.” But when it comes to elementary schools, “it might be a bit longer. Parents will be unhappy, but, again, we have to be safe.”

Business grants: Ontario government announced Friday they would provide grants of $10,000 to small businesses shut down as a result of recent public health measures. Eligible businesses include restaurants and bars, gyms, theatres, galleries, zoos, historic sites, and event spaces.

Cheaper electricity: The province is also offering additional electricity cost relief. For 21 days starting at 12:01 am on Tuesday, Jan. 18, electricity prices will be set 24 hours a day at the current off-peak rate of 8.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is less than half the cost of the current on-peak rate. This price change will apply to residences, small businesses and farms that pay regulated rates set by the Ontario Energy Board.

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Rapid testing: With the province rationing PCR tests — the most accurate way of detecting COVID-19 — to “those with the highest need,” it was announced Thursday the government would begin recommending the use of less-accurate rapid antigen tests as part of “test to work” strategies for workers in high-risk settings so that people who would otherwise have to self-isolate can return to work early with a negative test result. The rapid tests will also be recommended for people without symptoms as part of screening, and for people with symptoms who were previously expected to get a PCR test before the province’s PCR capacity became overwhelmed. Read the province’s full briefing here.

Non-urgent surgeries: On Wednesday the province directed hospitals and doctors to cancel all non-essential procedures as the medical system becomes overwhelmed with Omicron variant patients. "While this was not an easy decision, this time-limited measure will help preserve and increase hospital bed capacity by making between 1,200 to 1,500 acute/post-acute beds available as needed," Alexandra Hilkene, spokesperson for the Ontario health ministry, said in an email.

Unvaccinated workers: The Ontario Hospital Association says that even with growing staff shortages due to the Omicron variant, it does not want the government to order hospital employees who were fired for refusing to get vaccinated to be rehired. The association argues bringing these workers back will only make the shortages worse. “Quite simply, many staff members will refuse to work with the small number of health-care workers that did not comply with hospital policies given the risk that they pose to themselves and their patients, thus greatly exacerbating the staffing challenges that hospitals are currently facing,” association president Anthony Dale wrote in a Thursday letter to Labour Minister Monte McNaughton.

LTC staff shortages: Minister of Long-Term Care Rod Phillips said Thursday that some long-term-care facilities are dealing with staff absences of 20 to 30 percent because of widespread Omicron infections. According to Phillips, 186 homes – almost 30 per cent of LTC facilities in Ontario – are reporting Omicron-driven outbreaks. “Like every other workplace, we are seeing some of the pressures,” he said.

Boosters for teachers: The province announced Thursday it will begin setting aside some appointments at vaccine clinics specifically for education workers. Eligible individuals can book the appointments by calling the provincial vaccine hotline at 1 (833) 943-3900. The measure comes after the government was criticized by teachers’ unions for not having a plan to accelerate vaccinations for education workers when it announced schools would be closed for in-person learning until at least Jan. 17. The province also said it would be providing child-care workers with N95 masks, which offer better protection than cloth or surgical masks.

Bearskin Lake: On Thursday, the provincial government formally requested the Canadian military’s help to deal with an outbreak of COVID-19 at Bearskin Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario. More than half of the roughly 400 people that live in Bearskin Lake are currently in quarantine. The province’s request comes days after Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin publicly called on the federal government for military assistance. Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said Friday afternoon that Ottawa is in contact with the community to find out what specific sorts of help it needs. 

Mitas out: Progressive Conservative MPP for Scarborough Centre Christina Mitas announced this week she would not seek re-election in 2022. She cited family considerations — she’s pregnant with her third child in less than four years — as the reason for leaving politics. Mitas is the only member of the PC caucus who remains unvaccinated. “While Mitas had a ‘medical exemption’ from vaccination for undisclosed reasons, insiders say her presence in the Tory caucus was a source of consternation to some of Ford’s advisers,” Rob Benzie of the Toronto Star reported.

Yurek out, too: And on Friday, PC MPP for Elgin—Middlesex—London Jeff Yurek announced he would not seek re-election and would resign his seat at the end of February. Yurek had been minister of the environment, but was shuffled out of cabinet in June. There has been speculation that ministers left on the outside after the June shuffle had been among those pushing back against public-health restrictions during internal government discussions. 

More Ontario politics coverage on TVO

The province and the pandemic: What to watch for in 2022

Omicron. Elections. Political survival. Here are the three big questions the next year will answer, John Michael McGrath writes.

Schools are closed again. Can Doug Ford even explain why?

We’ve just been told, for the fourth time, that kids have to stay home. We haven’t been told what that will accomplish — or what it’ll take to get them back in class, Matt Gurney argues.

The high costs of ‘aging out’ of foster care in Ontario

The province has committed to redesigning the child-welfare system. Voters need to hold it to that — for monetary and moral reasons, Linda Mussell and Marsha Rampersaud write in an article that originally appeared in The Conversation.

Mild or not, Omicron could be more disruptive than any strain we’ve seen before

Vaccines are still very good at preventing deaths. But rapid transmission and exponential growth mean that services both public and private are potentially in jeopardy.

I really, really wish Canadian health care were better

Matt Gurney writes that while he doesn’t want to recreate the U.S. system here, we need to start talking about how some other countries achieve more than we do while spending less.

Beyond the Pink Palace

The Agenda: A return to online learning, again

Almost two years ago, The Agenda convened a panel to discuss education in Ontario as students dealt with the first virtual learning of the pandemic. As kids are again staying home from school — hopefully for just a 2-week closure — it seemed like a good time to check back in with that panel for some perspective on then, now, and the future. With insights from Prachi Srivastava, professor specializing in education and global development at Western University, currently a visiting professor at McGill University; Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education; and Caroline Alphonso, education reporter for The Globe and Mail.

Tracking Omicron: TVO.org Hamilton-Niagara reporter Justin Chandler speaks with physician Jeff Kwong about data gaps — and which indicators we should be watching.

Jobs, jobs, jobs: Ontario added 47,000 jobs in December, according to Statistics Canada. That was of course before the province decided to tighten public health measures because of the Omicron variant. Speaking of which…

Pandemic layoffs: The Cineplex movie theatre chain announced this week it was temporarily laying off 5,000 part-time employees because of the province’s decision to close theatres in response to the Omicron variant. The company has 67 theatres in Ontario.

Moderna madness: The Ontario Pharmacists Association says roughly half of all people eligible for the Moderna vaccine are refusing to take it, preferring to walk out or cancel their appointment and wait until a dose of Pfizer becomes available. Experts have consistently said that both vaccines are effective and you should take whichever is offered.

This article was updated at 5:15 p.m.

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