What’s ON: The week that was in Ontario politics (October 4-8)

Safe zones, a multi-billion-dollar surplus, and troubling tweets
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Oct 08, 2021
MPP Randy Hillier (centre), seen here at an anti-lockdown protest in April, has been accused of using Twitter to encourage violence against other MPPs. (Fred Thornhill/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: 

Queen’s Park keywords

Safe zones: Both the NDP and Liberals introduced legislation Tuesday that would put “safe zones” around hospitals and schools to protect them from aggressive anti-vaccine protests. The two opposition parties seem to be battling each other for the title of “safety zone champion,” with each of them tabling their legislation mere seconds apart. Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said that while some of these anti-vaccine protests have been frustrating, they haven’t impeded health-care workers “to any large degree,” and that there are already laws on the books to deal with them. “Threatening behaviour and intimidation are a criminal offence,” she said. For more on this issue, watch this recent discussion on The Agenda regarding the way police have handled anti-vaccine protests.

Deputy speaker: The legislature got a new deputy speaker on Tuesday when MPPs voted to have Progressive Conservative Bill Walker replace the newly-independent Rick Nicholls. Nicholls lost the deputy speaker role for the same reason he was recently kicked out of the PC caucus: Refusing to get vaccinated for COVID-19. “I want to thank the media for letting me know that the government has actually already selected a replacement for me,” Nicholls said. “Yes, that's correct. The government didn't let me know. But I know the individual, and I wish him all the best.”

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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Exemption ratio: Opposition MPPs are asking how it’s possible that 2 out of 70 Progressive Conservative MPPs have a medical exemption for a COVID-19 vaccination when the province’s own medical officer of health says the number of people who legitimately need such exemptions is probably no more than 1 in 20,000. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath termed the situation “statistically curious.” However, Premier Doug Ford says he will not review the exemptions of Christina Mitas and Lindsey Park, the two MPPs in question. "We were very transparent on the people who had a medical exemption," he said Wednesday. "We don't get involved in people's personal medical records."

Vaccine mandates: The debate over when COVID-19 vaccinations should be mandatory continues. Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province is open to introducing vaccine mandates in certain health-care settings if needed, just as it has already done for staff in long-term-care homes. But the opposition says the government isn’t moving fast enough. Andrea Horwath said the province has “never shown urgency” on vaccination rules, and that cabinet ministers are “always on their back foot and that has meant that people have suffered and COVID-19 has spread.”

LTC staffing: The province announced Wednesday it will provide up to $270 million this year to long-term-care homes to increase staffing levels by 4,050. “We know that more qualified staff means more daily care for residents,” Minister of Long-Term Care Rod Phillips said in a news release. The government says the money would increase the daily average of direct care from personal support workers and nurses by 15 minutes to three hours per day by the end of the fiscal year.

WSIB surplus: The Ontario government is planning to table legislation later this month that will enable the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board to send money directly to employers or cut premium rates when the agency has surplus funds. The WSIB is currently funded to 118 per cent of its funding target, meaning it has billions of dollars more than it is expected to need to cover injury claims. The NDP are criticizing the government’s plans. In a press release, the party says extra money should be redirected to injured workers, since nearly half of them live in poverty.

Randy: In his almost 14 years as a member of the legislature, Randy Hillier has had in his share of controversies. But the independent MPP for Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston seemed to take things to a new level this week. Toronto police say someone has filed a complaint with them, accusing Hillier of encouraging violence on Twitter against his fellow legislators. In tweets posted Saturday, Hillier, a vocal critic of the public health and vaccination measures most MPPs broadly support, wrote, “On Monday when the Ontario legislature reopens, people should bring a pot of boiling tar and a case of feathers. Each politician who arrives deserves both a tar and feathering.” He also wrote, “We cannot fight nor defeat evil through kindness, politeness or courteous comments.” The tweets have since been deleted.

More politics coverage on TVO

#onpoli podcast: A speech from the throne

Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath took a look at what was inside Monday’s throne speech and discussed other developments at Queen’s Park.

The throne speech shows the Ford government has come a long way

Steve Paikin shares some additional thoughts on this week’s speech from the throne: “Ford came into office determined to disrupt everything that was ‘normal’ about public life in Ontario. … But a global pandemic costing nearly 10,000 Ontarians their lives has reminded this government that empty-headed, fact-free, populist speeches — the likes of which we’ve seen from too many Republican politicians in the United States — actually don’t get you anywhere.”

It’s the Ontario way: On rapid testing, the province says no, then yes

The province announced Tuesday it will roll out rapid tests in high-risk areas for school children and children in child-care centres who are not symptomatic, not vaccinated, and not close contacts with a confirmed case or outbreak. This is good news in Ontario’s efforts to fight the pandemic, Matt Gurney writes. But he argues the rapid test announcement fits a pattern where Ford only says yes after repeatedly saying no. “The yes, when it comes, is rushed, panicked, and late.”

Ford’s cut to Toronto city council was legal, says Supreme Court. Now what?

Canada’s top court has found that cutting council in half during a municipal election was perfectly constitutional. But the fight doesn’t have to end there, TVO.org Queen’s Park columnist John Michael McGrath argues.

Beyond the Pink Palace

Fuel: Record-high fuel prices are being seen across the country, and that hasn’t escaped the attention of Ontario politicians. Andrea Horwath is calling for gas-price regulation, while Environment Minister David Piccini says he’s open to “a variety of options” to bring down prices at the pumps. (It’s worth noting that, while high gas prices can definitely be a burden on drivers, lower prices encourage more fuel consumption, which is bad for climate change).

Future blackouts: The call by many municipalities to phase out natural gas-fired electricity generation in Ontario by 2030 is unrealistic, according to a report released Thursday by the provincial agency in charge of managing the grid. According to the Independent Electricity System Operator, trying to eliminate gas plants in the province by the end of the decade would likely result in a typical homeowner’s monthly bill increasing by 60 per cent, and rotating outages during periods of high demand. Jack Gibbons of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance calls the study “fundamentally flawed” while Pollution Probe’s Richard Carlson agrees phasing out all natural gas generation by 2030 would be very difficult. The Globe and Mail notes that the IESO expressed reservations in 2006 about plans to phase out coal-fired generation, but the province was still eventually able to accomplish the feat in 2014.   

Jobs: The province added more than 73,000 jobs in September, according to the latest Statistics Canada report. "This month marks an important milestone as Ontario has now returned back to pre-pandemic employment levels," Minister of Economic Development Vic Fedeli said in a statement released Friday. "Since February 2020, Ontario has recovered the 1.1 million jobs that were lost due to the onset of COVID-19."

Free tampons: Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced this week that the province will distribute six million free menstrual products per year to school boards in partnership with Shoppers Drug Mart. "Through the strong advocacy of young leaders in our schools, it has become extremely clear that menstrual products are a necessity, not a luxury," Lecce said in a press release. 

Nurses: Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop was in Barrie Thursday to promote Georgian College’s new stand-alone four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree. “This is an important milestone for postsecondary education in Ontario as Georgian College becomes one of the first colleges to offer stand-alone nursing degrees," she said. "By allowing colleges and universities to have stand-alone degrees our government is increasing choice and reducing barriers to access high-quality, local education for our students."

Sick kids: Toronto hospitals saying they are seeing a much higher than normal number of sick children coming through their doors, in part because at least some pediatricians are refusing to see patients who may have COVID-19 symptoms. The Ministry of Health has told CBC News that since July, it has encouraged all doctors to resume seeing both kids and adults in person.

Turkey: Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore says it’s okay to have Thanksgiving dinner with extended family this year – as long as everyone around the table is vaccinated. If that’s not the case and there’s a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people in the group, attendees should consider keeping masks on indoors. As for Halloween, children (and teenagers who are really getting too old for it but can’t seem to resist collecting all that candy even though it’s kind of off-putting when they show up at the door) are allowed to go trick or treating. But Moore suggests people be creative and build a face covering into costumes, keeping in mind that a costume mask is not a substitute for a face covering. Read the full details of the province’s guidance around Thanksgiving and Halloween.


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