What’s ON: The week that was in Ontario politics (October 25-29)

Fixing long-term-care, vaccinating kids, and the Green party’s big gamble
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Oct 29, 2021
Minister of Long-Term Care Rod Phillips was in front of the cameras frequently this week. (CP/Steve Russell-Pool)

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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:

Queen’s Park keywords

A ‘right to disconnect’ and no non-competes: Labour Minister Monte McNaughton announced on Monday the government would be introducing legislation requiring employers with 25 or more workers to develop disconnecting-from-work policies, such as times of the day where employees are not expected to reply to work e-mails. The idea is to reduce the blurring of work time and home time, which has led some people to feel they are always on call. The legislation will also ban non-compete clauses, which some companies put in place to prevent their employees from leaving and working at rival firms, sometimes for years. Critics say the clauses depress wages and discourage workers from pursuing new opportunities. For more on McNaughton's efforts, read columnist Matt Gurney's thoughts on trying to legislate a better work-life balance.

Fixing long-term care: The province announced a raft of measures this week to improve the situation in long-term-care homes. Minister of Long-Term Care Rod Phillips announced Tuesday the province will spend $20 million to double the number of inspectors for the LTC sector. By next September, the province will have 344 inspectors, which Phillips said will be “better than one inspector for every two homes.” And on Wednesday, Phillips announced the government is prepared to spend up to $100 million over the next few years to hire 2,000 more LTC nurses. Then, on Thursday, the province introduced the Fixing Long-Term Care Act, which will double maximum fines on both individuals and organizations in the long-term care sector, and give the government the ability to take over management of poorly-performing homes.

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Vaccinating kids: Health Minister Christine Elliot said on Tuesday that the province will be ready whenever the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is approved for use for children between the ages of 5 and 11. She indicated that the vaccine rollout for kids will vary between the province’s 34 public health units, but said vaccination clinics at schools on evenings and weekends are likely to be a major part of the effort. Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table has called school-based vaccination programs “high-impact and effective.” The NDP has called for approved COVID-19 vaccines to be made mandatory for schoolchildren, but this week the province confirmed it will not add the COVID-19 vaccine to its list of mandatory immunizations for students to attend school. A new poll by Forum Research finds that 69 per cent of Ontario parents with children aged 5 to 11 intend to get their kids vaccinated once the COVID-19 shot is approved, while 11 per cent want to keep their kids unvaccinated and 19 per cent are unsure. Elliot says she’s heard approval for the Pfizer vaccine for use in kids “will be soon.”

Booster shots: The province has promised there will be a strategy released some time next week for administering COVID-19 vaccine booster shots. Christine Elliot posted on Twitter Friday that the plan will feature “information to all Ontarians on when they can expect to receive a third dose." 

School tests: More COVID-19 testing is coming to Ontario schools. On Thursday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced take-home PCR testing kits will be sent to publicly-funded schools in mid-November. There will also be expanded rapid testing at schools with multiple cases of COVID-19 for students and staff who do not have symptoms. As for unvaccinated school staff, they’ll have to undergo rapid antigen testing three times per week – up from twice weekly.

PSW pay: The province announced Thursday that a temporary wage increase for personal support workers during the pandemic is being extended until Mar. 31, 2022. The increase gives PSW’s $2 or $3 extra an hour, depending in which health care sector they work. The government says extending the pay bump will cost $373 million.

No restrictions (outdoors): New regulations approved Wednesday will completely lift capacity restrictions on large-scale, organized outdoor events in the coming weeks. That means traditional Remembrance Day events, Santa Claus parades, ski hills, and festivals can operate – as long as people wear masks when at least 2 metres of social distancing is not possible. One holiday tradition that won’t be taking advantage of the new rules, however, is Toronto’s Santa Claus Parade. Organizers have already announced the event will be televised-only this year because young children are still not eligible to be vaccinated. For informal outdoor social gatherings, the capacity limit of 100 people remains in place.

Nomination kerfuffle: An Ontario Supreme Court justice has rejected an effort to overturn Premier Doug Ford's decision to appoint a Progressive Conservative candidate in Simcoe-Grey. Stella Ambler had been campaigning to run for the Tories there, but Ford appointed Collingwood Mayor Brian Saunderson instead. Ambler argued in court that Ford's decision violated the party’s constitution, which maintains there must be an "open, public and democratic" nomination process. But Justice Edward Belobaba ruled the party leadership had the right to choose the candidate it wanted. 

Facedrive: The province is facing questions over handing over $2.5 million to a Scarborough-based start-up to produce wearable contact-tracing devices that company insiders now say never really worked. Since the money was given eight months ago, the company, called Facedrive, has seen its stock value plummet 98 per cent. The company told the Toronto Star that former employees who spoke to the paper are “disgruntled.” The government maintains it did its due diligence before handing over the funds.

Eviction outrage: MPPs from all parties are condemning a Toronto condominium for allegedly telling a gay couple to produce a marriage certificate or leave the premises. Condo resident Michael Cowan says when his partner moved in earlier this month, he was asked to provide a marriage certificate. When he couldn’t, his partner’s key fob was deactivated. A government official told a committee of MPPs said the province is investigating the incident, and looking into whether there are gaps in condominium law that allow condo boards to get away with such discrimination.

Courts backlog: Attorney General Doug Downey announced Friday that Ontario will spend $72 million over two years to address the backlog in court cases that grew during the early stages of the pandemic. A large part of the new funding will be spent on hiring additional court employees to handle the workload. For more context on the challenges facing the courts system, read this interview with Osgoode Hall law professor Trevor Farrow.

Randy: The legislature voted unanimously Thursday to call on independent MPP for Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston Randy Hillier to apologize for a “string of disreputable conduct” regarding things he has said and posted to social media regarding COVID-19 vaccines and public health measures. Most recently, Hillier published photos on social media of recently-deceased people, suggesting they died because of the COVID-19 vaccine. Family members of the some of the deceased have publicly refuted the idea a vaccine caused the deaths of their loved ones, and expressed anger at Hillier for using the images without permission.

More Ontario politics coverage on TVO

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Beyond the Pink Palace

Medical help: The Ontario Medical Association released a report Tuesday with recommendations on how to improve the provincial health care system. The group, which represents the province’s doctors, says all parties need to promise funding to reduce waiting lists, prepare for the possibility of another pandemic sometime in the future, and expand mental health, addiction, and home care services. When it comes to mental health, the report warns of a “tsunami” of patients who were not diagnosed or treated during the pandemic.

School vaccine mandates: Cracks appear to be showing in the efforts of school boards to make sure all their staff are vaccinated. The Toronto District School Board has given its employees a three-week extension to get their shots, while the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board has abandoned its vaccine mandate completely and will now accept unvaccinated employees who get tested twice a week. According to the Globe and Mail, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said 15 per cent of education workers have attested to not being fully vaccinated, including having medical reasons, or haven’t said either way.

Ring of Fire: Neskantaga First Nation and a legal clinic with York University's Osgoode Hall are asking the auditor general to do a value-for-money audit of the infrastructure investments the province is making into the Ring of Fire mining development in northwestern Ontario. "The public should be made aware if their government is spending public money on precarious mining investments with dubious returns while other sectors, namely health and long-term care, remain chronically underfunded," wrote Osgoode Hall Law School associate professor Dayna Scott in the request sent to the auditor general’s office.

Crutches shortage: CTV News reports that supply chain issues are resulting in a dwindling inventory of crutches at hospitals in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada. At Oakville Trafalgar Memorial ER, for example, about half of patients who would normally be sent home with crutches aren’t receiving them right now.

Dehydration deaths: The Canadian Armed Forces has cast doubt on allegations made by some of its own personnel that residents at two long-term-care homes died of dehydration as COVID-19 ravaged the facilities in 2020, according to the Globe and Mail. The military says because it didn’t conduct forensic investigations or autopsies, it can’t definitively say how the residents died. A soon-to-be-released provincial government report based on the work of a dozen inspectors will apparently also say no deaths by dehydration or malnutrition were identified.

Buy American: President Joe Biden had some bad news for the Ontario auto industry this week. His latest budget plan has a measure that would give American car buyers at $12,500 tax credit for electric vehicles – but only if the cars are made in the U.S. That has Canadian auto observers worried that car companies will choose to build new manufacturing capacity south of the border and bypass Canada. The measure has not yet been passed by Congress, and if it is, Canadian auto industry representatives say they’ll challenge the measure in court as a violation of trade rules.

Unmarked graves: Searches using ground-penetrating radar are scheduled to begin in the coming weeks at the site of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford. "I tend to think that, yes, there will be human remains of children,” Roberta Hill, a survivor of the Mohawk Institute, told CTV News.

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