Whereas certain orders made pursuant to section 7.0.2 of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act were continued pursuant to section 2 of the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act, 2020; and
Whereas, pursuant to subsection 8(1) of the act, the power to amend and extend the orders expires on the first anniversary of the day the orders were continued by the act; and
Whereas, pursuant to subsection 8(2) of the act, the powers to amend and extend the orders may be extended only by resolution of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario; and
Whereas the Premier has recommended that the powers to amend and extend the orders be extended to December 1, 2021;
Therefore, the powers to amend and extend the orders referred in subsection 8 (1) of the act are extended until the end of the day on December 1, 2021.
Before I dive into the specifics, I first want to remind the House of the tremendous sacrifice the people of Ontario have made over the last number of months and the steps we as a province have taken together in our fight against the deadly COVID-19 virus. Thousands of front-line health-care workers have put their lives on the line to treat and save others. Volunteers, businesses, and Ontarians across the province have rallied together to battle this pandemic. And, sadly, Ontarians have lost their lives to this virus, impacting the lives of thousands of others, including family members and friends.
Speaker, we must remain vigilant and continue to do all we can to stop the spread of COVID-19 and its variants.
Members of the House may recall that the passage of the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act, or the ROA, happened in July 2020. At that time, COVID-19 had been with us for several months, and we were focused on a gradual and safe lifting of restrictions that would allow the province to safely reopen and enable a cautious restart of activities and steady recovery from the pandemic. The ROA was passed by this House to ensure important public health and workplace safety measures remained in place to address the threat of COVID-19 once the first provincial emergency that was declared under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, or EMCPA, came to an end.
Specifically, certain orders that had been made under the EMCPA were continued under the ROA when the ROA was proclaimed into force. Since then, these measures have provided the province with the necessary flexibility to address the ongoing risks and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While two additional provincial emergencies have been declared under the EMCPA as the COVID-19 pandemic has continued its grip on our province, the ROA has allowed us to ensure the public health measures needed to limit the spread of COVID-19 remained in place. This includes the ability to extend and amend certain existing orders such as those related to workplace rules or practices, restrictions on gatherings and events, and compliance with public health advice.
The Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act, 2020, was proclaimed into force on July 24, 2020, and the ability to extend or amend orders under this act will cease to apply on the first anniversary of the day orders were continued, unless extended by the Legislature for additional periods of no more than one year.
Speaker, it is our proposal to extend the powers under the ROA until December 1, 2021. We are introducing this resolution after careful consideration. It takes into account the current available evidence to us, our experience to date with COVID-19, and the valuable input and advice of public health experts who have been providing guidance and expertise since the start of the pandemic.
I will outline why we are proposing this extension.
In the short term, due to high COVID-19 transmission, capacity issues in hospital intensive care units and public health units, and the continued impact of variants of concern, the House recently passed a motion to extend the period of the third declared provincial emergency to at least June 2.
In the medium term, even with vaccination rates increasing, COVID-19 transmission rates still need to be assessed.
Based on current evidence and our experience in combatting COVID-19, the province will require some level of public health and workplace safety measures, such as wearing a mask, for the foreseeable future.
We have no responsible choice but to remain vigilant and continue following public health advice to ensure the progress we have made so far in stopping the spread of this deadly virus will not be undone. As legislators, we have a duty to deliver a practical and flexible plan that supports the progress Ontarians have made while recognizing the ongoing risks of COVID-19 and its variants. That is why we’re carefully and thoughtfully planning every step of our recovery process in our efforts to re-establish Ontario.
Our proposal to temporarily extend the powers under the ROA maintains the steady approach we have taken through this global public health emergency and builds on the experience that has been gained at every step. The full name of the reopening Ontario act includes its description as “A Flexible Response to COVID-19,” and with good reason: The ROA provides the tools that allows us to loosen or tighten restrictions as needed to help protect Ontarians and keep them safe. There are currently 29 orders in force under the ROA. While this is the number currently in force, orders have been amended as needed, and some revoked as they were no longer needed since the act came into force last year.
As members of the Select Committee on Emergency Management Oversight are aware, as well as other members of this House, orders can only be extended under the ROA for 30 days at a time. The ROA also requires that at least once every 30 days, the Premier or a delegate minister appear before and report to the select committee on orders that were extended during the reporting period and the rationale for the extensions.
The government has been reporting to this committee every month on order extensions, with a comprehensive rationale as to why they’re still needed and should remain in place, as well as any orders that have been revoked. With our proposal to extend the powers under the ROA to December 1, 2021, there would be no change to the length of time that orders could be extended. The powers to amend orders would continue to be subject to certain criteria under the ROA, and the requirement to provide a rationale for every extension would still remain.
Throughout this process, the advice of public health experts and front-line workers has been paramount in guiding each of the steps we have taken.
I assure you that these are responsibilities we take very seriously, and I know each member of this Legislature feels the same way.
These decisive actions set Ontario on a steady path to combat the spread of the virus and allow us to begin to overcome the toll it has taken on individuals and families in each of our communities.
Over the last few weeks, we have also seen some remarkable progress in getting Ontarians vaccinated. Indeed, almost 7.5 million doses of the vaccine have been administered. More than 456,000 people are fully vaccinated, and we’re on track to have 65% of all adults vaccinated by the end of the month. With an increase in stable supply of vaccines, Ontario’s vaccine rollout has had so many successes. We also continue to expand eligibility and access through multiple channels as Ontario’s vaccination campaigns ramp up. Workplace, pop-up and mobile clinics have been launched in many hot spot regions to bring the vaccine directly to Ontarians, such as at the Ontario Food Terminal, which administered over 6,000 doses last week.
These are very exciting milestones and a true testament to the determination and dedication of Team Ontario, but we absolutely cannot afford to get ahead of ourselves, and we must remain vigilant to stop the spread of COVID-19. Even though we can’t know exactly what is ahead over the next few months, we do know that Ontario is better prepared, more equipped, more knowledgeable and ready to respond. We are confident in our testing structure and that the vaccine distribution rollout, now with a steady supply coming into the province, is well under way to achieve our immunization goals.
Before I wrap up, I would like to take a moment to recognize the teams of health care professionals, volunteers and front-line workers who have sprung into action over the last couple of months to help us get Ontarians vaccinated. While we still have a way to go, the dedicated vaccine teams across this province have shown amazing resourcefulness, adaptability and resiliency. It certainly hasn’t been easy to plan, manage and handle the logistics of mass immunizations when the supply of vaccines has been, frankly, unpredictable. But these teams not only accepted the challenge; they have shown us what success can look like, as more and more Ontarians get vaccinated every single day.
When we work together toward a common goal, good things do happen.
To everyone who has played a role in Ontario’s vaccine distribution, we thank you.
To our emergency responders, our health care workers, front-line enforcement and indeed all of those who continue to serve the public while navigating the threat of this deadly virus, we also thank you for your service.
Every decision the Ontario government has made in response to COVID-19 has been informed by medical advice and scientific evidence. Our balanced and measured approach has always put the health and well-being of our most vulnerable citizens first, while supporting the front-line heroes on whom we continue to rely. We continue to act swiftly and nimbly while being accountable and transparent.
Extending the powers of the ROA until December 1, 2021, acknowledges that we need the safety net of public health measures and workplace restrictions in place to keep us safe while we vaccinate even more Ontarians.
There is a reason to be optimistic, and we are making good progress in defeating this deadly virus.
I ask the honourable members of the House to join me with your support of this motion.
I want to acknowledge the Solicitor General’s recognition of the sacrifices of the front-line workers who have kept our province going throughout these 14 long, painful and agonizing months that we have experienced in this province.
She recognized the health care heroes who have been valiantly working on our behalf on the front lines in hospitals and long-term-care homes, who are exhausted by the effort that they have made. We hear from nurses and PSWs who have experienced profound PTSD because of what they have endured throughout this pandemic. I think it’s great that the Solicitor General acknowledged that.
She also talked about the essential workers who have, at great personal risk, been working in grocery stores and pharmacies, gas stations, delivery services, manufacturing plants, warehouses. They have been going to work every day throughout this pandemic knowing that they could risk taking the virus home to their families but doing the work that was necessary to keep our province’s economy afloat.
But this motion that is before us repays the sacrifices that these workers have made in our province by stripping collective agreements of long-held bargaining rights in terms of how they organize their workplaces. You don’t treat heroes this way. I’ve heard front-line health care workers say that the emergency powers in the reopening Ontario act take health care workers and others from heroes to zeros because of the impact that this legislation has on their workplace.
Speaker, there is no justification, no reason for this government to continue the emergency orders that are set out in the reopening Ontario act. The power to take emergency measures to keep Ontarians safe if we do experience that fourth wave of the virus—those powers are already available to the government. The existing Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act already gives the government the ability that would be necessary to put in place public health measures that may be needed to protect Ontarians from another phase of the virus. The Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act already allows for a phased approach to reopening. There is no possible justification for this one-year extension on the emergency orders, unless it is to continue the attack on worker rights that we have seen repeatedly taken by this government since it was elected in 2018.
The other thing I would question is whether these emergency powers have had any discernible impact on Ontario’s success in dealing with the pandemic. These emergency orders allow employers to override collective agreements. They did nothing to prevent the third wave. These emergency orders have been in place since last summer, and that is when we saw the second wave through December and January—and then the third wave, of course, that we are still in the throes of right now.
There were claims at the time from the government that these orders, this attack on collective bargaining, were necessary to help adjust staffing shortages by redeploying staff where they were needed. We have not seen that that ability had any impact whatsoever on staffing shortages. We are still hearing of staffing shortages in long-term-care homes, in health care facilities across the province. So you can’t even say that these orders were effective in helping the government respond to this very serious public health emergency that we have been living through.
I want to remind the government that there are two significant dates coming up in just a matter of months. On June 30, the PSW wage enhancement program will be expiring. The pandemic pay, the wage top-up that was given to PSWs to recognize the heroic work they have been doing in long-term-care homes and in home and community care settings, is set to expire. We know that if this government were serious about wanting to address staffing shortages among PSWs, the one thing they could do right now is make that wage enhancement permanent. PSWs deserve to be compensated fairly for the vital work they do to support vulnerable Ontarians.
We also know that, on September 25, this government’s paid sick days plan, this meagre three-day program that the government set up, will be expiring. Workers who need to stay home because they have symptoms of COVID-19—and this will be particularly important in light of the possibility of a fourth wave. We want workers to be able to stay home if they have symptoms of COVID-19, but they won’t be able to do that after September 25 because this government failed to put in place the permanent paid sick days that workers need to protect themselves and their families and their communities—and in particular, those essential workers, those front-line workers, those health care heroes I talked about earlier.
We know that throughout this pandemic there are nurses, PSWs and other health care professionals in hospitals and other health care settings who have been forced to take vacation days. They have been forced to stay home without pay if they have had to isolate for the 14-day period of quarantine, if there has been a COVID-19 exposure. Those workers, who are doing such incredible, important work for all of us on the front lines, shouldn’t have to take a financial hit if they are staying home to protect their co-workers, to protect their family members, to protect their communities. Yet this government has stood by and allowed that to continue to happen, allowed health care workers to be forced to take unpaid leaves of absence or use up the vacation days to which they’re entitled if they need to able to self-quarantine.
The other thing I wanted to talk about is that it’s not just sick pay or sick days or vacation days that will be affected by this extension of the emergency orders. The powers set out in the reopening Ontario act allow the government to override worker rights in many, many areas of the collective agreements. It allows override of article 7, the grievance and arbitration procedure; article 9, seniority provisions; article 10, contracting out; article 11, the work of the bargaining unit; article 12, leaves of absence; article 13, sick leave; article 14, hours of work; article 16, holidays; article 17, holidays; and article 18, vacation. All of these provisions in collective agreements that workers have fought so hard for are now at risk because of this government and the power that it has taken to override collective agreements. Think about the impact of that on the workers in this province. Think about the impact on those workers who have risen to the challenge of keeping our province going throughout this pandemic. Their vacations can be arbitrarily cancelled. Their shifts can be changed.
For example, if they work the day shift, if they have child care arrangements in place to enable them to work the day shift when they have children at home—their shift could all of a sudden be changed from the day shift to night shift.
Their job, their position could be eliminated, and they could be reassigned, with no say whatsoever, to another position. Their hours of work can be changed without any input or agreement from the employee who is affected. Leaves of absence can be cancelled or denied. They can be moved to another site.
Again, think about the transportation needs of people who may rely on public transit to get to their workplace in the morning. All of the plans that people have made to get to their place of work can be upended, because all of a sudden a worker can be reassigned to another site.
And, I think most troublingly, contractors and volunteers can be brought in to do work, as long as there is not a layoff. These contract workers, these volunteers can be brought in to a unionized workplace and take on the bargaining unit work, and the worker who had been doing that job can simply be reassigned. There is no question that this is a profound attack on worker rights and, honestly, it’s an affront to democracy. As I said, it is absolutely no way to recognize the heroism of the workers who have come through for all Ontarians during this period of crisis.
But I have to say, I don’t think the nurses in this province will too surprised by this motion that is before us, by this government’s interest in keeping that extraordinary power that they gave themselves under the reopening Ontario act. Why I say the nurses won’t be surprised is because in 2019, they and many other public sector workers discovered, with Bill 124, that their rights to collectively bargain wages had been taken away by this government. Bill 124, at the time, said that wage settlements had to be within 1%. And what we hear from nurses is that there has not been—not just nurses; others. But I want to recognize nurses. We just came out of Nursing Week in this province and International Nurses Day. I think all of us have felt more strongly than ever how grateful we are to nurses and other health care professionals.
Nurses in Ontario have not had a wage increase on par with inflation for more than a decade, and yet what we saw with Bill 124 is that it enshrines, it embeds below-inflation wage increases in perpetuity—not in perpetuity; until June 2, 2022, when we’re going to have another government elected in this province. This government decided that nurses and other public sector workers deserved no more than a 1% wage increase per year.
I can tell you that recognizing the sacrifices of nurses and other health care heroes certainly means more than stripping them of their collective bargaining rights and stripping them of a wage increase that is even equal to inflation.
So we are not going to be supporting this motion. We are going to continue to call for a full public inquiry into the actions that this government has taken. I talked about the fact that there are big questions about how effective the reopening Ontario act and the emergency measures that are set out in the act have been in terms of responding to COVID-19. Yesterday, I was able to join the leader of the Ontario NDP, Andrea Horwath, in her call for a full judicial inquiry into Ontario’s COVID-19 response, which of course includes the measures that are authorized under the reopening Ontario act.
Speaker, we have seen a public health crisis in Ontario that has led to more than 8,500 Ontarians losing their lives. Almost 4,000 of those Ontarians were seniors in long-term-care homes. We have seen scathing reports from the Auditor General, from the long-term-care commission that talked about this government’s negligence, frankly, in applying the lessons learned from wave 1 of the virus to wave 2 to help prevent those deaths in long-term-care homes. As a result, we all know that more seniors lost their lives and more families have been left grieving because of the loss of their loved ones in long-term care after the second wave compared to the first wave. Despite this government’s promise of an iron ring around long-term care, we know that nothing of the sort was put in place in Ontario’s long-term-care homes.
We need a full judicial inquiry into Ontario’s emergency response to COVID-19 because there is good evidence, there is research from health care professionals, that shows that the impact of this pandemic has been more deadly, has dragged on longer than it needed to if effective measures were put in place at the time that they were necessary.
We are still facing the potential overwhelming of our hospital system. I think all of us have been encouraged over the last week or so by the reduction in the number of cases. We know that the number of people who are being hospitalized and who are occupying ICU beds is coming down incrementally, but our health care system is still in a very, very fragile position. Our health care system is still very much at risk of being overwhelmed if we are not able to make our way through this last phase of the virus.
All of us heard at the very beginning of this pandemic from front-line workers—from health care workers, in particular—who were not being provided the PPE that they needed from their employers. I remember being on the phone with nurses at London Health Sciences Centre who were in tears. I was in tears; they were in tears when they talked about their fear, their deep anxiety that they were putting themselves at risk and, more importantly, that they were risking the health of their families. We had nurses who were setting up mobile homes in their driveways so that they didn’t have to go into the house when they returned from their shift. They stayed in these mobile homes and didn’t see their families throughout those early days of the pandemic.
Speaker, this is another question that has to be investigated by a judicial inquiry into Ontario’s COVID-19 response: Why did this government not learn the lessons of SARS? Why did they not apply the precautionary principle in health care settings and workplaces across this province? There was a lot that was not known about the virus when COVID-19 was first identified, and yet the precautionary principle says that you have to assume the worst and put measures in place that are going to protect workers.
Going back to those nurses who were on the phone with me in tears: They were being told that N95 masks were being rationed in their workplaces. They were being kept locked under a desk. They were given one N95 mask a day. They were being asked to reuse N95 masks. That is not the way to apply the precautionary principle and protect health care workers.
There are a lot of other questions that need to be answered about Ontario’s pandemic response that could be addressed by a full judicial inquiry into the COVID-19 measures that were put in place.
Going back to paid sick days, to those front-line workers who on September 25 are no longer going to be able to access the program that this government finally put in place, after more than a year of advocacy and efforts by health care professionals who were telling the government—more than stripping workers of their rights under collective agreements, what is needed is a program of paid sick days that workers could access when they are too sick to go to work. That is the way to address staffing shortages, for one thing, in this province.
We heard from the study that was done by Peel Public Health in the fall and winter of 2020—this report was issued in January of this year. Over that period, Peel Public Health interviewed 8,000 essential workers in Peel who had COVID-19 symptoms. Guess what, Speaker? Two thousand of those 8,000—one quarter; one out of four of those workers—continued to go to work even though they were symptomatic. They did not do this because they wanted to expose their co-workers to infection. They didn’t do it because they wanted to expose other transit riders as they rode in packed transit vehicles to work. They didn’t want to expose them to the virus. They didn’t do it because they wanted to expose their neighbours in the densely packed residential areas that they lived in. They didn’t want to expose them to the virus. But they had to feed their families. They had to go to work so that they could get their paycheque, so that they could pay the rent at the end of the month. And yet, it took months and months of advocacy, of calls from a broad cross-section of organizations to get this government to do anything, to implement a program of paid sick days.
When you reflect on the kind of coalition that was built around paid sick days, it included health care professionals, it included medical officers of health, and it included boards of health. We know that boards of health in those 34 different public health units are made up of municipal councillors and they’re made up of community representatives. Business leaders and community leaders sit on boards of health. Every single board of health in this province—all 34 boards of health—co-signed a letter to the Premier back in, I think, February calling on this government, urgently, to implement a program of paid sick days for workers in this province.
Also in that coalition that was pushing for paid sick days we saw mayors. We saw the mayor of Brampton, the mayor of Mississauga and the mayor of Toronto also pushing this government to act. We saw small businesses. Even the Ontario Chamber of Commerce recognized the value of paid sick days to protect their workers and to protect themselves from workers feeling that they had no choice but to come to work sick.
Yet, as I say, it took months and months and months before we finally saw a policy response from this government. That is something that a public inquiry could also look into. Why did it take so long? How many lives could have been saved if the government had acted more quickly on paid sick days? Certainly, that is an issue that has to be addressed. It’s an interesting contrast to the measures that were put in place by the reopening Ontario act—the measures that this government intends to extend for another year.
The other issues that we need to look at in terms of Ontario’s emergency response include, of course, the devastation that happened in our long-term-care homes, and in particular, the role of private sector for-profit long-term-care-home operators and how the actions of those private long-term-care-home operators increased the death toll in the long-term-care facilities. There have been multiple analyses that have looked at the number of deaths in long-term-care homes that are privately operated versus long-term-care homes that are non-profits or publicly owned by municipalities. Those analyses have consistently shown that the outcomes and the risk of death was much lower for the workers who are in those non-profit or publicly owned homes.
At the same time, we have seen the for-profit operators of these homes take in huge bonuses. Huge shareholder bonuses have been paid out to many of those for-profit operators at the same time that the homes that these for-profit operators were managing were experiencing a devastating death toll among the residents.
We have to look at PSWs and how this government responded to the calls for four hours of daily hands-on care. That has been recognized as essential to ensure that long-term-care-home residents are treated with the dignity and the respect they deserve, and so that PSWs can do the work they are trained to do and long to do with residents. Instead, we heard agonizing accounts from PSWs who spoke to the long-term-care commission about the personal pain they experienced as they watched residents die with no one there, and they were running around in a home that was chronically understaffed.
This government’s temporary pandemic pay wage enhancement was really the only thing they could come up with to try to deal with the PSW shortage in long-term care, and we know that they had to be pushed into extending that pandemic pay, even until June 3, and have consistently refused to acknowledge that one of the most impactful reasons for the shortage of PSWs is the lack of fair compensation and the fact that many of the jobs for PSWs in long-term-care homes are not full-time jobs. They are not jobs that come with any kind of security, that come with benefits, pensions or those kinds of things.
To make PSW jobs good jobs would go a long way to not only addressing the staffing shortages, but improving quality of life for the residents who are cared for by PSWs—and also making PSWs, that critically important role, a more satisfying and rewarding occupation for the people who are doing that work.
Speaker, as we look to the reopening of Ontario—I think in about 35 minutes we’re going to be hearing from the Premier about the plans—I think we have to reflect on this government’s previous reopening plans for the province, and look carefully at what went wrong during those previous reopenings and what we need to make sure we do right in the reopening that is approaching.
We know that in February, for example, the government released a disastrous colour-coded framework that was immediately criticized by medical experts for setting completely wrong benchmarks in terms of how the colour-coding was going to work, but also for being very confusing to Ontarians. We need to look at why the government decided to ignore the public health advice that they were getting at the time from the science advisory table about not moving forward with reopening as quickly as they were doing. We all know the consequences of that reopening too early that happened in February.
Hopefully, unlike the long-term-care sector, where the government failed to learn and apply the lessons from phase 1 to phase 2, as we approach the next period of reopening in the province, the government will learn the lessons from those previous failed reopenings that put Ontarians at risk.
The other thing we certainly have to be looking at is the timing of the government’s responses to COVID-19. We were hearing medical experts saying, for example, as early as December, “Don’t think about reopening. Now is not the time. We need to take decisive action.” This was actually in November and early December. The government needed to act decisively, and instead we saw dithering from this government. Then, finally, there was an announcement before Christmas that there was going to be a provincial shutdown on Boxing Day, five days later. What is the message that is conveyed when the government signals that we are in a very, very serious emergency, that this is a crisis and people need to take this seriously, and yet it says, “Take the next five days and shop and enjoy yourselves until the next state of shutdown is going to be in effect”?
I don’t want to suggest that it isn’t important to give businesses and families in this province the time that is necessary to plan.
But going back to that colour-coded framework and the metrics that were set out there—this government needs to be transparent about what metrics are going to be used to decide the phased reopening approach in this province.
Ontarians deserve to know. They deserve to have some hope as they, and we, are all watching those daily case counts, waiting until, as Dr. Williams and others have said, there is a sustained period of case counts below 1,000. Ontarians deserve to know what is going to be necessary, what the government is going to be looking at, as those phases of reopening occur. That is the kind of information that gives people confidence, that gives people faith that this government is acting on good information, acting on evidence, acting on advice from scientists and others who understand what metrics to be looking for.
Maybe at 3 o’clock, Ontarians will get that information about the metrics, and I certainly hope so.
But that is another issue that should be addressed by a public inquiry into Ontario’s response—the impact of those mixed messages that were given by this government, the impact of poorly communicating the expectations of Ontarians in terms of following public health advice and, in fact, the impact of directives that were at times contradictory, and what this meant for both public confidence in what the government was asking people to do and the impact of the pandemic and transmission and infection.
Speaker, other issues that we need to be looking at include this government’s support for small businesses—what we often heard from this government was this stated commitment to small business and other businesses in the province and this recognition of the importance of keeping our economy going. But instead of doing what the medical experts were telling them and paying small businesses to stay closed, this government took an approach that businesses had to be open even if it undermined the health of the people of this province. That was because they didn’t want to invest the money—they didn’t want to make the investment in helping businesses stay afloat, helping businesses survive the pandemic, until they had to be pushed into doing something in their March budget.
We had been hearing from small businesses from the very beginning of the pandemic about the need for a rent support program, about the need for additional financial assistance.
In my riding, in London West, I heard from a lot of small businesses who didn’t qualify for any of the federal programs, who were worried about the federal loan program, because that would have to be repaid and they didn’t know if it made any economic sense to access that federal loan. It would just put them further under water. They didn’t qualify for some of the other federal programs. They were looking to the province for support, but it took months and months for the province to do anything, even in the face of very serious problems that were identified right away with the federal-provincial commercial rent support program, which required small businesses not to apply directly to the government for commercial rent support, but to ask their landlords to apply to the federal government for commercial rent support. I know, in London West, there were a lot of small businesses who told me that their landlords had no interest in applying to that program or else didn’t qualify because of the criteria that were in place for that program.
That was all known very early in the pandemic—the problems with the commercial rent support program—but again, it took months for this government to revise the way that program was designed and do something that allowed business owners to apply directly for commercial rent support.
The small business grant program that this government has introduced—I’m sure that all of us have been hearing from business owners in our ridings about the problems with that program, as well: the criteria that make many businesses ineligible to apply for the program, and then also all of the problems in terms of the rollout of the grant money. Businesses that have qualified have submitted their applications and have to wait, in some cases, months for that grant money to appear. And we know that the additional $20,000 comes nowhere near making up the kind of revenue losses that businesses have experienced in the province of Ontario.
Education is another area that really has to be looked at closely. This government’s response to keeping students and education workers safe in Ontario schools has to be investigated very carefully through a process like this judicial inquiry that the Ontario NDP is calling for.
We hear the Minister of Education repeatedly say how safe Ontario schools were when schools were open, citing data from the asymptomatic testing program, which was completely inadequate to give an accurate sense of the extent of COVID-19 infection in our schools. This government refused to put in place the measures that public health experts had said were needed: to reduce class sizes, to improve ventilation, to ensure that there was broad asymptomatic testing. Those were the measures that were necessary earlier in this pandemic in order to keep schools as safe as possible for education workers and students.
It took some time and political pressure, frankly, from parents and from teachers in this province to get the government to recognize that education workers have to be a priority for vaccination, if we are truly committed to ensuring that our kids are able to get back to school so that they can participate in that in-person learning that is so critical to their academic success, to their emotional and social development, and to their mental health and well-being. If we are serious about that, then we need to take the measures that are necessary to get kids back in the classroom, and that includes vaccinating education workers.
On the topic of vaccination, there are some legitimate questions that people have raised about the rollout of the vaccination program in this province. We saw the government drag its heels on setting up a vaccine task force which was only put in place in December, although they had known for some time that vaccines would be coming. The vaccinations started, and then there was a Christmas break.
A lot of people had questions about the slowness of the vaccination program. As you know, the government said that it was all related to supply, but we saw from the vaccine tracker efforts that were under way from medical professionals in this province—who have really stepped up, quite frankly, as watchdogs of this government, to give the public accurate information about the number of vaccines in freezers and the number of vaccines in arms. We need to look at why it took so much time, for example, to get long-term-care-home residents vaccinated. They quite rightly were at the top of the priority list, but it took several months, much longer than it should have, to get those long-term-care-home residents vaccinated.
We also have to look at the equity implications of the government’s vaccine rollout.
Now, of course, I’m sure that all of us are getting emails and phone calls about second doses. We haven’t heard clarity from this government as to the plans for second doses, and in particular, second doses of AstraZeneca.
Speaker, I just want to offer some comments now in my role as democratic reform critic for the official opposition.
The mess, the chaos that we have seen in this province in terms of the response to COVID-19—it didn’t have to be this way. One only has to look at countries like New Zealand that operate on a system of proportional representation to see the benefits of collaboration, coordination and consensus across party lines. We have not seen that from this government ever, in terms of the response to this public health emergency.
Even from the very first days, the government presented legislation that had already been developed. We had several emergency sessions in the chamber shortly after the pandemic was declared to deal with those pieces of legislation, but at no time did the government approach the official opposition and the other parties to say, “What do you think the government as a whole should be doing to deal with this public health emergency?”
In New Zealand, a special committee was established, chaired by the opposition, that looked not only at reviewing government legislation, but at proactively identifying what needed to be done, what kinds of emergency responses needed to be taken. We are all aware of the success of that governance model in New Zealand, where they have basically eradicated COVID-19. Of course, they have the advantage of being an island, but I think there are a lot of lessons that can be learned from the New Zealand model—not only from that process of collaboration, consensus and coordination that is embedded in a proportional representation model of governance, but also in the decisions that were made as a result of that governance model.
Number one: Listen to the science. We saw the science advisory table in Ontario that was providing advice to the government in a behind-closed-doors way. We saw that science advisory table, fed up with the fact that its advice was not listened to, issue a very clear statement in April about what will work to control COVID-19 and what won’t work to control COVID-19. As we know, one of the things that they clearly identified as what won’t work is discouraging people from participating in outdoor recreational activities, and yet this government chose to announce in the middle of April that all outdoor recreational amenities would be closed.
The government stated that what will work to control COVID-19 is a proper program of paid sick days, and yet this government chose to introduce a program that provides only three paid sick days, and only until September 25. Shortly after the government released its program, we heard Dr. Brown from the science advisory table say very forthrightly—when asked, “Is the government’s program of three paid sick days going to be effective?” Dr. Brown said no.
In New Zealand, they listened to the science. The measures they put in place were informed very clearly by medical evidence, by the guidance of health care professionals and public health experts who understood the kinds of measures that were needed to address COVID-19.
The other thing that the New Zealand model showed us is the importance of prioritizing both health and economic considerations. Both have to be equally recognized.
Too often, we saw this government see-saw between one or the other. They had to reopen really fast in order to get the economy moving again, even if it jeopardized the health of Ontarians. That’s what we saw in the last round of reopening that led directly to the third wave.
An analysis of New Zealand’s system of all-party co-operation and governance showed that this approach saved lives. It saved lives by ensuring that opposition ideas were shared prior to legislation being brought forward and acted on by the government at the time.
Another lesson from New Zealand’s experience in responding to COVID-19 is that people’s trust, people’s confidence in the government relies on transparency and accountability. It relies on understanding why the measures that the government is asking them to follow are being put in place. It relies on giving people the information that the government is using to make decisions, for example, about the phased reopening of the economy. That is what is so desperately needed in this province: People need to have hope that we are going to come through this. They need to have something to look forward to. They need to be able to plan for what needs to happen in order for the economy to move forward.
Speaker, I think that as we look to the next—certainly to the end of this year, certainly over the period that this motion is going to be extending these emergency orders, until July 2022—that’s after the next election, I just realized. As we look to these coming months, we are going to be facing multiple, multiple challenges. There is going to be a legacy in terms of the impact on our health care system—and we know that, in the cancelled surgeries, trying to get people the health care services they need, dealing with the reforms that are necessary in our long-term-care system, helping ensure that our economy is back on track, putting in place measures that will enable a she-covery to help women come through this pandemic.
These challenges will require, more than ever, consensus, co-operation and collaboration across party lines. I urge this government to take that approach instead of arbitrary, autocratic measures like what is proposed today.
There’s so much that I could say about this, and the thing is this: I know the government members don’t like so much to hear criticisms, because nobody ever really does, but I do think it’s our role as the opposition to demand the best. I understand that you feel that your hands are full, and these are difficult and unprecedented times, but that’s our role as opposition.
I have a couple of observations to make on the course of this pandemic.
I’d like start with, first of all, pointing one thing out. I can’t refer to hypocrisy when I point to anyone in general. Certainly, the Speaker would not like that. In fact, the Speaker just looked at me when I uttered the word, so I’m not going to allege hypocrisy here. I believe in things like coincidences, but I will not say it in that term.
Right at the outset—because a lot of what we’ve heard in the most recent days has been talk about borders, movement of people—I do want to bring us back to right before the first lockdown occurred. There was a press conference where the Premier was encouraging people on March break to “go out there and enjoy yourselves. Get out there, go to the States, go wherever it is,” right before we were about to lock down—and pretty much at the same time that the World Health Organization was declaring this a global pandemic. So I just want to remind government members that that had been uttered. I understand that there is now a departure, when it comes to their thoughts about borders and travel and whatnot, but right at the beginning in the outset, they did have a different mindset.
Vaccinations: I agree that the federal government could be doing more and could have, throughout this pandemic, done more in terms of getting us vaccine supply. It starts from the top. They are the ones who determine how much supply we get. Is it fair to put all the blame there?
Yes, it starts from the top. Do they get enough vaccines? No. And then when it comes here, do they send it where it’s needed?
So do they send it where they need it? No, they don’t. But once it gets into the hands of this government, does it go to where it’s needed?
My community, just like the Premier’s, has been a hot spot community throughout this pandemic. Why? Because it’s filled with essential workers, people who even at the most restrictive times of this lockdown were out there, packed on buses, and working hard to keep this economy, the province and everything going. Did they have targeted resources, the access you could imagine that they deserved during this pandemic? No. In just the same way that the federal government did not get us enough vaccines, did not send them where it was supposed to, neither did you.
I’m sorry to interrupt the member.
I’m going to remind the member and all members of the House to direct their remarks to and through the Chair, not to the other side, regardless of who is speaking. The back-and-forth is going to stop, as much fun as it seems to be all for members.
The member from Humber River–Black Creek.
I do not believe they were sending it where it needed to go. And you could see the results—because all you had to do was look at the levels of COVID-19 infection versus vaccination rates. Early on, the difference was staggering You saw priority, in terms of vaccines, going to places—for instance, in the city of Toronto, where people who are very privileged, like us in this chamber, to be able to work from home, places where you see the most affluence, versus communities where we have essential workers packing on buses, going to work, working in warehouses, working in factories. That’s what we saw at the beginning.
Look at pharmacies. Communities like mine were a desert for vaccines. You really didn’t see vaccines available. I think there were something like two in the entire area. They still lag behind. That, to me, is not spending the time, effort and resources where they are needed the most. That’s what we saw.
In my community, I was very proud to work with an incredible team of health people on the ground, associations, our local hospitals to try to fight tooth and nail to procure more vaccines in every way, shape or form that they could.
And just for the record, when the government goes out there and makes announcements, they usually do it under pressure. When I talk to doctors and leading experts in health care, they say they’re getting the information from CP24, just like everybody else is. What kind of leadership is that? That’s a little concerning. In fact, I was very concerned when I heard that. I thought they at least had the inside scoop.
So in the case of when we were talking about communities like mine—the NDP have been saying that you have to vaccinate based on risk—they were not making that available.
All of a sudden, there was a press conference. The Premier got up and said, “We’re going to make it available to 18-plus.” I immediately called our health care providers. I said, “Oh, my God. Are we going to get the vaccines?” They said, “We didn’t know about this. We just heard on the news, just like you.” “Do you have any plan, any supply, any vaccines?” “No.”
So I had to work with the UHN, our amazing local Humber River Hospital, Black Creek Community Health Centre, GlobalMedic—a huge number. We came together and we were able, within a week, to double the vaccination rate of Jane and Finch and a number of postal codes. In fact, it has just been reported now, through the work of these incredible health people on the ground in my community, we now have some of the higher vaccination rates.
I want to move on to another area. I think each and every one of us, as we have made phone calls and reached out to communities in different ways, has heard a lot of opinions. One of the things that I continue to hear is the frustration at those who have taken advantage of the pandemic.
The question is, has the government provided strong leadership to ensure that people aren’t taking advantage? Do you all remember Pusateri’s at the beginning of this, where they were charging like, what, a million bucks for Lysol wipes or something like that?
So in that select committee I asked the question because now—wait for it. Imagine: They put this hotline out here to deal with gouging the province of Ontario and they got—what is it, like 30,000 phone calls? I know the government loves math: How many charges were laid when it came to gouging? Because you know gouging was happening out there. Out of the 30,000, how much?
Take auto insurance: Insurance companies—oh, my God, what have they been doing to us during this pandemic? Let’s deal with auto insurance. I reached out—
In my community, we pay some of the highest rates in all of not just Ontario, but Canada and North America because of where we live, because of our postal code. So I reached out to Toronto police, to the chief of police and I said, “Do you know what I’d like to see? I’d like to see the accident data in Toronto.” I’d like to see it from the beginning of the first lockdown, when literally you’d go outside and you could just play road hockey on the Allen Expressway. That’s how empty it was; you could be doing that. In three months, the accident rate in the city of Toronto had dropped by 74%.
At the time, the NDP and I were calling for a reduction in rates during the course of the pandemic of 50%. What did the government do? They said, “We will allow insurance companies to give drivers a rebate”—they’ll allow them; they’re not going to compel them. They’re going to say, “Hey, guys, why don’t you do a good PR move and give a little bit of money back?”
Constituents are calling me, and they’re fighting tooth and nail to get pennies. Many of them were rejected outright.
Do you know, during the course of the pandemic, how much money insurers have saved? It’s $2.7 billion. They saved that much money, and was that money returned? Do you know what some of them were doing? They were telling their drivers, “Since you’re not driving, why don’t you just put your car on fire and theft, for instance.” I had a person who actually went along, did that, put it on fire and theft, and said, “We’re not going to drive this car. We don’t need to drive it for three months now.” I think they had two vehicles. They put their cars on that. They went back and their insurance rates went up $300 or $400. At the time, FSRA was changing its rules. Instead of their quarterly filings—and we all wanted to know; I was just sitting there on the edge of my seat, saying, “I want to see the auto insurance rates. They’ve got to be coming down.” For a year, we didn’t know what was going on with auto insurance rates, and when they finally came out, they had gone up.
So here we have $2.7 billion in savings by auto insurance companies. Here we have rebates—they claimed that savings is when a person puts their car on fire and theft. If accidents are down by 74%, that means if you’re driving a vehicle, the chance of you having an accident is 74% reduced. It doesn’t matter whether your car is parked or not; the incidence of an accident is far reduced. Guess what happens? Rates go up.
This government has been locking down businesses. Many small businesses may never reopen after this pandemic, which is terrible. Guess what’s happening to insurance business rates? They’re going up. Businesses are closed, people aren’t there—okay, now you will have restaurants doing delivery, but people aren’t sitting there, in many cases, dining in there. Their insurance rates are going up. But where’s the leadership of this government in tackling insurance companies? I don’t understand.
So the list goes on of people who have been taking advantage of this pandemic.
What I expect, as an Ontarian, is to see my government talk about this and take leadership in restraining it. There’s so much gouging that’s going on right now, so much crisis. While small businesses have been suffering tooth and nail—mom-and-pop shops suffering right now to make ends meet, struggling to get the business support grants—and so many of the people have been reaching out saying, “We’ve been rejected. We can’t even get a reason as to why this has happened,” you’ve got the mega-corporations raking in money, billions of dollars, more than they ever did, and other groups that have been doing well during the pandemic.
Certainly this pandemic has been the biggest global news story, so really what it has done is it has provided cover for the government to be able to deal with other stuff.
I’m going to take you back to the beginning of the campaign. I’ll never forget this guy who told me he has always voted Conservative for his entire life. Now he was not going to vote Conservative. He was mad because the Premier was consistently talking about building on the greenbelt. So that happened then, and throughout our time here in the Legislature, they’ve continued to make forays into finding ways to just build wherever they want.
Now, most recently, in the midst of the pandemic, they took away the power of conservation authorities to protect themselves. They’ve changed the LPAT, so now if you have a development and you’re a community and you don’t like it, you can’t do anything. They’ve taken away your power in so many ways to be able to challenge this. I just don’t understand.
Again, I believe in coincidence; I really do. You go and you look at an MZO that’s issued out, and then you go and you look at the developer, and basically, the day before or the day after, thousands of dollars get donated to the Conservative Party, which happens to be the government, as well. I believe in coincidences—and there are countless examples of this. That’s basically what we’re seeing in the midst of a pandemic: We have groups of very wealthy, powerful individuals, developers—although they’re probably not happy with you guys about the cost of lumber. I’d like to hear from this government what’s going on with regard to that, but—
There’s a lot of stuff, I’m sure, because you know that these guys—maybe not the rank-and-file members who are here today, and I respect them. I’ve already said in the chamber that I’m pretty sure the Premier has a Walmart cellphone that he gets, and when the CEO needs to reach him, he just reaches in, and he’s got the special ring. I know that the development industry has that special phone call too. I’m sure they’ve had conversations about that. But they’ve done well. They get MZOs. The power of communities to be able to determine what kind of development happens in their area has been eroded. The list goes on and on.
Something else I want to talk about—and this one is very, very serious, and this is something that we all agree upon. I mentioned it in a member’s statement a couple of days ago, and that’s long-term care here in Ontario. Since I took office, I remember meeting countless nurses, PSWs, family members who have come to me, and they’ve talked about the deplorable conditions of people living in long-term care. I know before I was elected, even under the past government, the NDP called for an inquiry into long-term care because of the situations that are happening that we all hear about. Each and every one of the people in the chamber has heard terrible horror stories. You’ve seen images of bedsores, like I’ve said before, that look like shrapnel wounds. I just can’t understand how this is happening.
And yet, now we are in the midst of a pandemic, and each time New Democrats have pushed for, let’s say, a Time to Care Act that would add hours more each day—minimum hours of direct care—governments, whether or not they agree with it, will vote on it. It will pass first reading. It will pass second reading. Does it ever get to committee? Certainly, they don’t want to go out there and go against it.
Granted, this government have been the fathers and mothers of private long-term care in Ontario. We saw during the pandemic that some of the worst outcomes for residents living there have been within private long-term care. I remember very near the beginning of this pandemic, when we were talking a lot about long-term care in terms of the loss of life, which is just an absolute tragedy—I think we’re at 4,000 or something at this point. It’s unbelievable. The people dying there are our parents, our grandparents, alone. For every dollar invested into one bed in long-term care that goes into non-profit, it’s 79 cents that goes into direct patient care; but in for-profit, it’s like 49 cents.
You would think that there would be an incentive, an urgency to deal with this, and yet we’re waiting. We’re waiting to allow people to be able to go in and see their loved ones. There’s a bill that’s just sitting there, waiting to make its way all the way to royal assent. There’s so much stuff that could be done, but there’s no sense of urgency. We know what the problems are. We know we need to invest—we need to get more PSWs. We have to pay them well.
Right at the beginning of the pandemic, we saw cases—the military had to be called in—where you have people sharing PPE because there’s not enough in the facility and PSWs who are relegated to work part-time in multiple places. The list goes on. This is stuff that should have been identified right at the beginning of the pandemic, and it wasn’t. It took thousands of deaths before changes—and they’re not all made.
There’s so much that needs to be done to deal with long-term care in this province. These are our loved ones, and this should be a non-partisan issue. I understand that the for-profit industry is very connected to Liberal and Conservative insiders, but at some point, you’ve got to cut the umbilical cord. You’ve got to say, “It’s enough. You guys have made the money on our loved ones. Now you’ve got to show them dignity and respect.” You can’t have a good long-term-care system where the primary motive is profit. It makes no sense. That’s something that has to be done immediately.
In the minute and change that I’ll wrap up with—because I could probably be here all afternoon talking about different things—it’s paid sick days. Right at the beginning, this government spoke against paid sick days, then the federal government instituted a very minimalist approach to deal with that. That was criticized by this government. They received so much criticism, not just from the official opposition, who was echoing every day the need to put paid sick days—you’re in the midst of a global pandemic, and people in my community are forced to say, “Do I pay the rent, or do I protect everybody by not getting on a packed bus and spreading illness?” They’re being put in this situation by this government. So now we’ve got three days.
More work needs to be done. I understand that you don’t like criticism, and I want you to know that I have deep respect for each and every member of this government, through the Chair—despite it being a Thursday—and I want to say that you know what I’m saying. Look within your heart. Challenge the leadership. You know what needs to be done. Get it done.
Ontarians are counting on us, regardless of political stripe. There are so many things that need to be improved and fixed. Please do it. We’re all counting on you. We’re counting on you to do the right thing too.
My riding of Toronto Centre has been hit especially hard by wave after wave of this pandemic. Many people have become seriously ill. Many have experienced the trauma of loss of friends and family and loved ones. And so many have struggled with the isolation of never-ending lockdowns. We’ve also lost a lot of people in our community to this virus, and I want to express my sincere condolences to the families and loved ones in my community who have lost people in their lives in the last year.
I want to begin my speech today by sharing the story of one of the folks in our community who we lost to COVID-19 this year. It’s important that we never forget the community members whose lives have been lost. We stand in this chamber every day and we debate how to respond to this crisis—paid sick days, what’s going on in long-term care, making our schools safe, the botched vaccine strategy—but, at the end of the day, while we’re in here debating and trying to hold this government accountable, people in our communities are dying.
Bontu Abdulahi was a personal support worker from my riding who passed away last spring. Bontu was 44 years old. She was an Ethiopian immigrant who raised two children in North St. James Town, which has seen one of the city’s highest infection rates. She was devoted to her children: her son, Leymo, and her daughter, Biftu.
Last September, the Toronto Star released an article about the heartbreaking impact that Bontu’s passing had on her 17-year-old son, Leymo. It reminds us that every person lost in this pandemic has left behind family and friends, chosen family, loved ones, who now all of a sudden have to navigate the vacant space that that loss has left in their lives.
Asokan Rasiah was the chef and owner of Peartree Restaurant. He passed away in January. Asokan was a feature in the Cabbagetown community for over 30 years. He first moved to St. James Town from Sri Lanka in 1988. On just his second day in Canada, he got a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant on Parliament Street. Not a month later, he was a line cook. Within six months, his passion for cooking had really ignited and he became a chef. He loved the energy of the kitchen and worked as a head chef there for several years, until the restaurant’s owners decided they wanted to sell. Asokan didn’t hesitate to buy it, and from 1993, which was 28 years ago, he opened Peartree Restaurant in the location. He will be truly, truly missed and never forgotten. And I know that the folks in Cabbagetown miss him very deeply.
I want to share my sincere condolences to the family and friends of Asokan and Bontu and all of those we’ve lost to this pandemic.
There’s no way for us to replace the lives that we’ve lost, but we need to start taking, and this government needs to start taking serious action now to ensure that as we’re in the third wave now—hopefully starting to move out of the third wave—that we’re not staring down a fourth and fifth wave because this government consistently refuses to listen to the advice of scientists, to listen to the advice of experts, to listen to the advice of the front-line workers of this province, or to listen to any of the calls that the official opposition has been asking for.
Speaker, I hear often from folks in my community that they’re frustrated with this government’s response to this pandemic, and I share their frustrations. It has become clear that COVID-19 has exacerbated the inequities in our communities, and it has revealed that there are problems here that have existed for years. COVID-19 is a disaster, but from an equity lens, there is no denying that the poverty in our communities, the underfunding of our health system, the underfunding and under-resourcing of our schools, the lack of good jobs and good salaries for PSWs in our long-term-care sector, that for 15 years under the former Liberal government—certainly things have gotten no better under the last three years of this Conservative government—our systems, our social safety nets, were allowed to crumble due to lack of investments, and our communities and our systems weren’t able to withstand the brunt of this pandemic.
The work to do the emergency preparedness to get us ready for this never happened. Where were the implementations from the SARS report of the recommendations after SARS? What happened? We weren’t ready. And this government has dropped the ball. We are now in our deepest, longest, most devastating lockdown yet, and folks in my community want to know what happened. Why didn’t this government act earlier to save lives? Why did the Premier ignore the advice he received from experts? Why didn’t he want to spend the money to protect our communities and to protect workers? He left billions of dollars on the table, unspent, unallocated COVID-19 relief money that could have gone into our communities, that could have gone into paid sick days, that could have saved lives.
I have to ask why it is that it’s the people of Ontario whose lives we’ve lost who are the ones paying the price for the utter incompetence of this government and this Premier.
Speaker, people want this government to admit their mistakes and start fixing them. We need this government to start listening to experts and to get help where it’s needed most.
As I said earlier, people in my riding of Toronto Centre have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. Many people in my riding work as essential workers, and they’ve had to continue going into work during this pandemic. They’ve had to leave their homes, putting their lives at risk every single workday, to ensure that there is someone there to look after our seniors, to run our grocery stores, to drive our buses and keep our cities running. Unfortunately, these workers have not received the support or the respect or the permanent paid sick days they deserve and have been left to suffer the consequences of this government’s decision to reopen businesses too soon, leading to further outbreaks in places, particularly warehouses and food processing plants. It has been devastating.
My husband works in a retail warehouse with about a dozen other folks up in North York. It has been terrifying every day for the last year to watch him get up and get in the car and go to a warehouse in North York—the immense risk that he has been at all year. When he got his first vaccine a few weeks ago, the relief I felt, that I didn’t have to worry about him anymore—I didn’t realize how much space in my body was that stress over my partner, who is an essential worker in this province, and how much stress I was carrying for him.
It’s not just the workers; it is the people who love them, who are walking around every day in this province praying that their aunties and their cousins and their parents and their brothers and sisters who are essential workers are going to make it through another day. The weight of that is so heavy and completely unnecessary—if this government had done its job to protect workers in this province.
We know that in many cases, it is vitally essential for workers to go into work, for example, in health care, long-term care, grocery stores and pharmacies. But in many cases, there are workplaces that really shouldn’t have been considered essential at all—I would argue my husband’s workplace probably is non-essential—in large-scale manufacturing facilities, for example, like warehouses. Construction sites are a big one. The construction piece has been particularly upsetting for folks in my community who are working from home and trying to put their kids through online school. If folks have walked around or spent any time here in downtown Toronto, in the downtown east—it’s not too far from the Legislature. I know many of my colleagues who travel in from other parts of the province have places they stay that are nearby; many of you have small apartments in my riding, so you shouldn’t be unaware of how life is different for us here in downtown Toronto, just like how life is different up in the north. Context matters.
What does the pandemic look like for folks in Toronto’s downtown east? We’re incredibly dense. We have some of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the entire country. St. James Town is the most densely populated neighbourhood in all of Canada. We are mostly vertical with high-rise buildings.
Do you know what it’s like to be in a global pandemic and live in a 30-storey building when you can only have two people on an elevator at a time, and what that’s like trying to just get out of the house to get groceries or exercise—or what it’s like when this government just assumes that, because their experiences are suburban or northern or rural, everyone has access to a giant backyard for fresh air and exercise and recreation?
We don’t have those privileges in downtown Toronto. Most people in my community don’t have backyards; many of them don’t even have balconies. There’s nowhere to go.
It has been entirely devastating for my community when this government made the decision to close outdoor recreation spaces and park facilities, because those are the only spaces we have. The only spaces we have are public spaces. We don’t have backyards. It was heartbreaking. Where were folks supposed to take their kids to get any sort of meaningful exercise?
And then we saw this government vote down our motion last week to safely reopen outdoor amenity spaces, in line with recommendations from the science table.
There was no reason to deny folks in my community access to outdoor spaces.
It has been so difficult. It’s not just that we’re dense. It’s not just the complications of the elevators. It’s not just that we don’t have access to outdoor spaces. It’s also the physical size of our apartments. The average size of our downtown units is getting smaller and smaller every year, as developers try to cram more units into these ever-expanding developments. Most people I know are living in apartments that are 400 or 500 square feet or less. If you’ve got 700 or 800 square feet in my community, you’re living life large. All of a sudden, imagine now that that’s the only space you can be in. We live in small spaces downtown because—we joke—we’re never home. It’s the trade-off. You can live in a small space because, in normal times, you’re never home. You go to work. You’re gone all day. You come and spend maybe a few hours at home. You mostly sleep. We live downtown because we like to be close to the markets and the fairs and the festivals and the street life and the bars and the pubs and the restaurants. We eat out a lot. We love it. It’s the culture of being downtown—that you never actually have to be in your apartment because there’s always something going on.
But then what happened when we were all stuck in 500-square-foot apartments and all of a sudden nothing was going on—but now, not only that, you’ve got maybe two people.
Let’s imagine you’re in a one-bedroom apartment, a one bedroom plus den, and you’ve got a small child at home, and now both parents are working from home, remotely. Maybe one is working from a small desk in the corner of the bedroom, squeezed in next to the nightstand; maybe one is trying to work from the kitchen table, and you’ve got a seven-year-old trying to work on a laptop—three people in 500 square feet while the kids are trying to go to school. It was an impossible task.
Speaker, what brought me around to this was the construction piece. Imagine trying to do all of that—and the construction noise just never stops. Even worse, this government expanded the hours that non-essential construction could actually take place during the pandemic, as a favour to their developer lobbyist friends. So, from early, early, early in the morning—as early as 5, 6 in the morning—to late at night, non-stop, all day, while you’re in your tiny little apartment with your screaming children, trying to get work done, you have no outdoor space to go to retreat to, and all you have going on all day is endless jackhammering. People are losing their minds in my community, and I don’t blame them. The construction noise that this government has allowed to go on has been inescapable. You cannot get away from it. People have nowhere to go. We are expected to bear the brunt of the development that is going on in the downtown east, and we aren’t getting access to the public spaces to offset the difficulty that goes along with those developments.
And there are no options. It’s not like we have bigger spaces to move in to. People can barely afford to live in the spaces they’re living in, which is another issue we’ve seen come up. The average price of a one-bedroom apartment in my riding is over $2,000 a month. Even when CERB came in—CERB was never enough. CERB was $2,000 a month. If your rent was $2,100 and you lost your job because of COVID-19, what bills were you going to pay? Were you going to put them in a bowl, pick the bills out at random to see which ones were going to get paid this month? Were you going to pay your rent or were you going to pay your hydro? Were you going to put food on the table? Were you going to pay your Internet? If you didn’t pay your Internet and your Internet got cut out, how were your kids going to do virtual school? These are the decisions that people in my community were forced to make, because over and over and over again, this government failed to come to the table and provide real supports that people in my community needed. You voted down every attempt we made at a reasonable eviction ban in this province. You voted against rent subsidies.
Through you, Speaker: They voted against rent subsidies to help offset the cost to help prevent an eviction crisis in the pandemic. And when the eviction crisis did hit, do you know what this government did? They doubled down. They said, “We’re going to pass a bill and make it even easier to evict people in a pandemic.” They quietly passed Bill 184, rammed it through this House last summer, and then reopened the Landlord and Tenant Board in August, despite the fact that we were about to enter the third wave—and it has been devastating. Thousands of families in this province have lost their homes through no fault of their own because they lost their jobs because of a pandemic. And this government decided they were going to make it as fast and easy as possible for landlords to evict their tenants instead of providing people with the support they need. How did they do that? They took their Landlord and Tenant Board and took it online. What happened when they took it online? Human rights abuses. We were hearing from tenants who didn’t have access to a phone or Internet or a computer to actually participate in their own hearing and defend their right to housing. We heard from people with disabilities who were being denied in-person hearings to accommodate their disabilities.
I heard one horror story of a tenant who was forced to call in to his eviction hearing from London, Ontario, from a pay phone in the pouring rain, and when he couldn’t take the cold anymore, he hung up and lost his housing as a result.
There has been no support for tenants to actually navigate the unmitigated disaster of this online, virtual eviction factory that they have created.
Even worse, the most shameful part is, they’re sticking to their guns on this one. This government is planning to keep this chaotic, inequitable, online eviction factory running after the pandemic. They’re going to double down and keep a broken system that has been called out by every stakeholder in the legal aid sector, by ACTO, by the FMTA. Anyone who does anything to do with tenants’ rights has recognized how problematic this was, but this government doesn’t listen.
Speaker, I see I’m almost out of time, but that’s really the crux of the issue. No matter what it is, whether it’s the eviction crisis, the pandemic, the crisis in long-term care, the lack of paid sick days or a failed vaccine strategy, this government doesn’t listen. They don’t listen to the people of Ontario, they don’t listen to the experts, and they don’t listen to the opposition.
So I’m demanding all of you today to do better and to listen.
Madam Speaker, with that, I would like to add some more context to what we’re debating today, and that is that we are in, as we know, a brutal third wave. We’re in the middle of a brutal third wave that could have been entirely preventable, but what we see from this government is, despite having had all these emergency powers, having had all the power you needed to respond to this crisis, you have failed to do that. You’ve walked us, eyes open, into this brutal third wave.
We see the deaths that could have been prevented. We also see that our ICUs are overwhelmed. Our PSWs and our nurses are on the brink. They’re talking about PTSD. They’re talking about exhaustion. They’re talking about crying in the locker rooms before and after work. The stories that we hear, that we all hear, from the long-term-care commission are heartbreaking. We heard stories that I can’t believe that we are talking about in the province of Ontario. Seniors died in long-term care not from COVID-19 but from neglect. They just needed water, and there was no one there to help them.
This is what happened under this government’s watch while they already had these emergency powers that would have allowed them to prevent that. So while they’re asking for more emergency powers, my question would be, what did you do with the powers you had before? They didn’t help you. They didn’t help the people of the province of Ontario. They didn’t help you respond to the surgical backlogs that we have in the province of Ontario. I mean, they’re extraordinary, the surgical backlogs. The FAO reports that we have 419,000 surgeries and 2.5 million diagnostic procedures that are backlogged. People are dying because of this. So you had the emergency powers, but this is what’s happening under your watch.
I think it’s really important to make this perfectly clear: While this government is asking for this emergency order to extend to the end of December, some of the measures that were put in place, for example like the PSW wage enhancement—that, by the way, not all PSWs working in the province of Ontario were entitled to—are going to expire on June 30, and the meager paid sick days that you put in place are going to expire the end of September. So you’re asking for emergency provisions through to the end of December, but you’re going to allow for some of these other provisions to lapse.
Right now, basically we’re looking essentially at what I would call this government’s balance sheet on what they’ve done with their emergency powers. Really, what we see are winners and losers in this province. We have seen the government have all the power in the world to protect the most vulnerable in our province, to protect the little guys the Premier likes to talk about, but what is the result of this? On the one side of the balance sheet, we have small businesses. I mean, small businesses have closed by the thousands, tens of thousands in the province of Ontario, and they’re not coming back. They close every single day still, with all the government’s openings and closures and lack of a response to support small businesses. The failure of the small business grant program is known by everyone.
So we have, on the one side, small businesses that are suffering extraordinarily under this pandemic, but then on the other side what do we have? The member for Humber River–Black Creek, I’ll be singing your song. We have Costco; we have Walmart; we have Amazon: extraordinary profits, billions in profits during this pandemic. They were allowed to stay open during certain parts of this pandemic under the government’s direction while small businesses were locked out. So there’s the winner, the big, profitable corporations, and the losers were the small businesses in the province of Ontario.
I mean, 4,000 seniors lost their lives in long-term care in this province and 600—we forget that 600 people died in retirement homes in this province. On the one hand, we had these preventable, unimaginable deaths, and on the other hand, the other side of the balance sheet, we have the for-profit operators. We have the big corporations like Chartwell, like Revera, like Extendicare. During the time under their watch, people were dying needlessly. They were extending huge corporate bonuses, dividends and buybacks, underlining completely the notion that—why do we have profits in long-term care and retirement care? Why? Why would we allow our seniors to be less valuable than a profit, than a buck in this province? So winners and losers, and the losers in this case are our seniors and our loved ones living in long-term-care and retirement homes in this province.
During this pandemic, we’ve heard so often that this government is using this as a cover to slip through, to push through an agenda that has got nothing to do with protecting people during the pandemic. And the environment is on the wrong side of this ledger. The environment and our natural heritage have suffered so much during this government’s anti-environment, pro-development agenda. They’re paving over wetlands for Amazon, actually. Those are the two sides of the ledger: allowing people to pave over wetlands in Duffins Creek, paving over wetlands now in my riding of Ancaster, issuing MZOs to allow this to happen. The environment is on one side of the ledger. What have we got on the other side of the ledger? We have well-heeled, powerful land developers and donors to the PC Party. It’s a matter of record that these same people who are benefitting from MZOs in the province that allow them to pave over wetlands are the same corporate interests that are also now donating to the PC Party. Let’s let the people of Ontario make the connection. This happened, they were allowed to pave over a wetland, and donations came into the PC Party. As my friend from Humber River–Black Creek said, “I believe in coincidences.”
On the Premier’s winners-and-losers ledger balance sheet, I’m going to say that there’s no more vulnerable group that would expect their government to look after them that has been on the wrong side of this balance sheet than our children and our youth in this province. It’s heartbreaking. It really, really is heartbreaking to see how they’ve been treated, how they’ve been overlooked, how they’ve been neglected by this government during this pandemic. They’re vulnerable. They’re our kids. They deserve the best from this government. They deserve for this government to step up, to understand how they are going to be impacted by this pandemic.
The government had all the emergency powers in the world that they needed to protect children and youth in our province, and the outcome is that they have not. The mental health and well-being of our kids is on one side, and on the other side of the ledger, there are the cuts and the savings that this government has seen in education, in mental health. We see that they’ve refused to spend the money that we need and that we would have expected them to do to keep kids safe in this province. The mental health crisis is shocking. There’s no other way to describe that. Mental health advocates, educators, parents, hospitals are sounding the alarm, and yet silence on the side of the government when it comes to this.
There’s a group that is trying to make sure that this gets onto the radar of this government. They’ve identified this problem as #codePINK. Madam Speaker, you probably know in a hospital when you hear “code blue,” we understand that’s a cardiac emergency, but code pink is a term that’s used in hospitals to declare a pediatric emergency. That’s exactly what we have in this province. We have an emergency when it comes to our kids in this province.
Let me just share with you some of the statistics when it comes to our kids’ mental health. This comes from the group, the #codePINK campaign partners. These are some of the stats: “Suicide attempt admissions have increased by 100% on average during the pandemic.” At McMaster Children’s Hospital in my riding, they reported a 200% increase. In McMaster also, the number of children who were actually admitted after a suicide attempt has tripled.
“Admissions for substance use disorders have increased by 200%....
“70% of kids aged six to 18 report that the pandemic has harmed their mental health....
“More children and youth are seeking emergency care. There’s been a 61% increase in ER visits among children and youth from mental health conditions.”
I’ll just read some more, but it is overwhelming to understand that this is happening while we sit here in this Legislature and we hear nothing from the other side of this government. They sit silent in their chairs and don’t even stand to speak to this bill that they’re putting forward.
I’m going to just read—actually, why don’t I read this quote from Dr. Cohn, who is the president and CEO of SickKids, who says, “Children’s health and well-being are on the line now and their development into the next generation of adults is at stake if we don’t act immediately.”
From Bruce Squires, who is the president of the McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton: “Many of our children are in crisis. Prolonged social isolation, school closures and limited opportunities for interaction outside of the home are resulting in an alarming rise of patients coming to hospital with serious self-harm and mental wellness concerns. As a tireless advocate for child and youth well-being, McMaster Children’s Hospital supports the call for strategic and sustainable investments to help reverse these concerning trends, and further protect young people from the devastating mental health impacts brought on by the pandemic.”
They’re calling for calling for investments. They’re calling for resources. And the government is going the opposite way. They’ve cut programs. They’re cutting funding for children’s programs. They’re cutting in-school programs, despite the call from these experts that what we need is a whole-of-government response. We don’t need a fractured response. We don’t need to hear the empty words from the Minister of Education. We don’t need to hear something that comes from the Minister of Health. We need the entire government. All of their ministries need to take a whole-of-government approach and stand up and resolve what is a devastating mental health crisis when it comes to our kids. Our kids are just not all right, and they should have nothing less to expect that their government would be stepping up and addressing this alarm.
But what we know is, in fact, that that’s not the case. The government has cut mental health funding. They’ve cut community supports. In fact, now there is evidence that they are cutting a program that deals with some of the most severely troubled youngsters in our province. There’s a program that’s run by Syl Apps. It’s a unique program, providing comprehensive mental health services to some of the province’s most troubled, at-risk people, people who are already in trouble with the justice system. This program is closing. This closure seems to have been made without advance discussions with key partners, with ministries, including health and the Attorney General.
What’s going on over there? How is it that this program could be cut without any kind of transparency, without any consultation with experts? It’s just evidence that the one hand does not know what the other hand is doing and that when it comes to children’s mental health, we need a whole-of-government approach. They need to have a summit. They need to take their emergency powers that they’re asking for and use it to help our kids. But instead of that, we have a government that continues to use the pandemic as a cover for underfunding our education system, our public education system, in the province.
During this pandemic, as I said, our youth have suffered so much. I’m just going to read a quote from a young student who is part of a group of students who are petitioning this government to allow them to have a safe, in-person graduation ceremony. This young person said, “We’ve already given up so much of the teenager experience. We gave up dating and drivers’ licences and sports and education. It’s certainly compromised our education, and I think one last somewhat-normal event will make it feel like it was all worth it.”
They have given up so much. I never thought about it. Because of how old I am, I never thought about giving up dating and the things and the normal events in a young person’s life that they’ve had to give up, and they’ve given it up because, like everyone else in the province, they have sacrificed and they have done their part. But we see a government that doesn’t seem to want to reward their suffering and reward them with an investment in their education.
At the beginning of this pandemic we pleaded with the government, experts pleaded with the government: “Spend the money to keep our kids safe. Reduce class sizes. Put a cap on class sizes. Have in-school testing. Fix the ventilation problems that have been so long-standing. Do what needs to be done. Spend the money to keep our kids safe.”
But they didn’t do it. We didn’t do it. So we had to close schools because they weren’t safe because the government wasn’t prepared to do what they needed to do, because they would rather save a buck than save kids’ education. We ended up with online learning.
What we know is that online learning doesn’t work. It’s not working for our kids. Parents who write to me or call me talk about kids’ anxiety and stress. They say there’s a lot of tears, there’s a lot of frustration and there’s a lot of anger. We all know what it’s like to try and see your kids or your grandkids struggle through with online learning. It is not working.
A recent CBC survey has shown that 92% of educators that were surveyed worry about children’s mental health. In my riding of Hamilton, roughly 70% of local educators said that some of those kids will never catch up academically. So not only is kids’ mental health suffering, their academics are suffering as well. And now we have a Minister of Education and a government that’s putting forward a permanent—permanent—option for remote or online learning.
There’s no plan for a safe return to school. There’s just this notion that we’re going to have a hybrid model. Some people will learn at home; some people will learn in class. There’s no plan, they haven’t consulted with teachers, and in addition to cutting funding and flatlining funding, there are no additional resources to sort this out when we already know that it doesn’t work.
I have a letter here from the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board that says essentially they’ve been asked to come up with a plan, with no resources. They said, “We, as a board, have not had an authentic opportunity to consult nor provide feedback.”
Does that sound familiar? All of the experts never get an opportunity to consult or provide feedback. The PSWs, the nurses, the teachers: All of our front-line workers never get an opportunity to tell the government what they know, because they are the experts in this instance. So it’s great—the government loves their power and they want more and they want to use it, but at some point they have to make themselves accountable.
We have called for a judicial inquiry to look at the government’s pandemic response, an actual, fully independent inquiry so we can figure out what the government has done with their power and what the government has done and hasn’t done with their money. Maybe we can get an answer to why the government sat on billions and billions and billions in the middle of a pandemic. Maybe we can get an answer as to where the $4.4 billion is that the FAO said seems to be unaccountable.
Nothing, if nothing—if they’re going to ask us to hand over the keys to the castle—unlimited power—we should have a minister in the room who is prepared to stand up and debate this.
Just to beg forgiveness of the House leader opposite, there will be a lot missing in this report that we’ll have to settle next week if we can. I’m only going to be outlining the PMBs today.
On Monday, May 31: PMB item number 91, from the member for Hamilton West–Ancaster–Dundas, which is Bill 296, Retirement Home Justice and Accountability Act.
Business for the afternoon and the evening is yet to be determined.
Tuesday, June 1: The morning and afternoon are yet to be determined and the night is yet to be determined. The PMB will be item 92 for the member from Mississauga–Erin Mills, and that PMB has also yet to be determined.
On Wednesday, June 2, the morning, afternoon and evenings are to be determined. The evening PMB—
In the evening, the PMB, ballot item number 93 for the member for Humber River–Black Creek—a really wonderful PMB. I am certainly looking forward to this one: Bill 293, An Act to proclaim July 10 as Nikola Tesla Day in Ontario. I think that’ll be a wonderful evening of PMB-ery.
On Thursday: morning to be determined, afternoon to be determined and then the evening to be determined. The ballot item number 94 for the member for Glengarry–Prescott–Russell has yet to be determined, Madam Speaker.
So there’s a lot yet to be determined. Of course, much of the determination on this will come to light as this afternoon progresses into this evening, and as we get through this afternoon and well into this evening, then we could maybe shed some light on how the rest of the week when we come back will unfold, Madam Speaker. Thank you very much.
Meegwetch, Speaker. I rise to speak about the government’s motion for the extension of the reopening Ontario act’s powers. I’ve been listening all afternoon, and for the last 14 months or so, we’ve been addressing issues, the crisis, the pandemic, and how it impacts all of Ontario. I’m very honoured to be able to speak from the perspective of a different lens, a First Nation lens but also a northern lens, a Kiiwetinoong lens.
Speaker, we all know that we have to protect the health care resources and make sure that we are doing our best to follow public health guidelines to protect ourselves, protect our communities, protect our elders, protect our children. I know, of course, that we should be approaching the reopening of the province in a cautious way. I’ve just seen some reports or some updates that there are plans.
Speaker, I think we can all agree that safe outdoor activities are an important issue to discuss. For us, being outside is important to our physical, mental and spiritual wellness as human beings. Being from the north, in the riding of Kiiwetinoong, we know this. Outdoor activity is essential to who we are.
Our riding is 294 square kilometres with, I think, approximately around 33,000 to 34,000 people in the riding. It’s a really massive area. I think one of the things that happened is that the science advisory table advised this government that maintaining social connections and outdoor activities are very important, again, to our wellness and mental health.
There’s a lot of coming and going, and I realize that that is a natural part of the process. Could it be faster, please? I’m being distracted and unable to hear the member speaking. Thank you.
I return to the member.
One of the letters said, “Pandemic response measures are impacting the people of Ontario. Nature-based activities like fishing and hunting are extremely important right now because they can be done safely within public health guidelines while providing essential social, physical and mental health benefits. These activities are the safe outdoor escape that many people need right now to help with the increasingly heavy burden of a lingering pandemic....
“The same recognition should be given to crown land camping, boat launches and other outdoor activities that can part of the solution, not the problem, with COVID.”
One of the things that I heard recently from the Sioux Lookout Chamber of Commerce is that they were concerned that there was no consideration being made for the circumstances of people across the riding of Kiiwetinoong. I’m just going to read part of the letter: “After crown land camping became prohibited under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, there was great distress throughout the communities” in the area of Sioux Lookout. “It is understood that crown land can still be used for activities such as exercise and recreation, but not overnight accommodation. The people of our region rely on camping as an escape, which is needed now more than ever due to the stress and adverse effects that COVID-19 has had on the mental health of all individuals. It is frustrating that this privilege has been taken away during a time when it’s most needed.”
When we talk about the restrictions, when we talk about this motion for the extension of the reopening act powers and some of the letters that I have read, these letters represent a small number of people who have reached out to share their frustration that they weren’t being heard by this government.
One of the things I also heard is that many tourists across the region were frustrated by the lack of support for their industry. Yes, the Ontario Tourism and Travel Small Business Support Grant is a positive step, but it’s one that happened too late in this pandemic for many businesses. We also know that thousands of people across Ontario lost their jobs because the Ontario government did not step up to help the industries that depend on tourism-based businesses, especially in our region in northern Ontario, where they pretty much depend on American business, American tourists. It’s really important to say as well that the original Ontario Small Business Support Grant did not meet the needs of small businesses and many of them are struggling today.
I’m not sure if any of the MPPs have been to the riding of Kiiwetinoong. Kiiwetinoong consists of four municipalities and 31 First Nations. Twenty-four First Nations are fly-in communities—no road access. These First Nations are part of Treaty 9, Treaty 5 and Treaty 3.
For those who don’t know, public health in First Nations does not work the same way as public health units in Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout and Toronto. That’s where we always talk about jurisdictional Ping-Pong when we talk about access to services.
I was talking to a group this morning, and they were talking about the Ontario-Canada two-step. It’s almost as if we’re in a different Ontario when we talk about the riding of Kiiwetinoong, because we’re treated differently. I don’t know if it’s because we’re brown, because we’re First Nations—I don’t know. Maybe it’s the old colonial Indian Act that you guys follow. Maybe that’s it.
Somebody messaged me a couple of hours ago, and I laughed at it at the beginning. Somebody tagged me on social media. It’s from the north. There’s a lady by the name of Jezebel Winter. She’s from Wapekeka. It’s a community of about 300 or 400 people there. This is her message to me—it’s kind of funny, but it is kind of serious, too: “Can someone tell” the Premier “he has to have panties, men’s briefs and socks as essential items. When ppl come out for medical they usually forget their panties and briefs.” I laughed at that when I saw it, and I shared it. I’ve been getting lots of comments about it.
But I want to share that because in Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay—I was talking about the fly-in communities, right? When there’s a medical emergency, you guys are entitled to ambulatory services. We don’t have ambulatory services; all we have is Ornge. So you go to a nursing station, that nurse calls a doctor on call by phone and then the doctor calls Ornge to pick up whoever. Sometimes it’s urgent; sometimes you don’t have time to grab your clothes or whatever.
Back in 2015, there were 2,750 flights in these 24 First Nations that are fly-in. That’s about eight to nine per day for Ornge to fly into these communities. Each medevac was about $12,000 to $15,000 back then. I don’t know how much it is now. But that’s our health care; that’s our emergent care.
When they’re talking about that, there are a number of things that happen if there’s an emergency. Like, we have local stores. We don’t have Walmarts. We don’t have clothing stores. We don’t have those types of things. We just have pretty much—I don’t know what you call them—general stores. That’s how they start talking about, when you come out for an emergency, then you don’t have any place—because those are not essential items, and when you go to Walmart, all the clothing is blocked. When there’s a newborn—when they leave the community when there’s a newborn, we don’t have these baby clothes that are up in the community, so there’s no access to these items.
There was another person who commented about when there are releases from jail and people are often displaced in the city until they can get home to their northern communities. Clothing is definitely necessary as they would come out of jail with literally nothing. These are the comments that have an impact. Somebody here who’s deciding whether it’s regional lockdowns or what essential items are, they don’t consider the north: out of sight, out of mind. Because you don’t live—you never grew up like us. You’ve never been up to Angling Lake, Wapekeka. You don’t know how it is up there. I think it’s important to talk about that just to share some of those stories.
I was talking about the public health system in the north, and I think what has really happened is the COVID-19 pandemic has further shed light on the challenges associated with that jurisdictional Ping-Pong, that jurisdictional ambiguity that exists within the system for those who live on reserve versus in an urban setting, and the lack of adequate resources to fully respond to public health emergencies such as this.
I spoke to a group of 31 First Nations this morning in the Sioux Lookout area, and they have their own health authority, the First Nations Health Authority. They have their own public health authority that represents and addresses the health needs. But one of the issues that they face is that the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority is not represented under the provincial legislation. It has no recognized authority over public health. That lack of provincial recognition results in the First Nations Health Authority being unable to establish and implement the regional public health system as requested by the leadership in these First Nations.
To be effective, especially in a pandemic, they need to access public health information, data, technical expertise and recognition by their partners by various sectors, which they cannot get without provincial authority over public health. Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority has been working to achieve public health equity comparable to the provincial boards of health, the health units, while developing a First Nations governance system that meets the needs of the communities and supports community-based public health laws and decision-making.
As an example, when I ask about anything health-related or First Nations-related to the government, they always just come back and talk to me about the vaccinations, the work that they did. I can’t remember—the remote community that they did up north. The Premier did that to me a couple of months ago; the Minister of Health does that to me when she talks about that. But do you know what? The First Nations do not have access to that data. They don’t even know how many people got vaccinated because it became provincial data because Ornge was the one that planned the rollout.
Then, of course, when you’re in a First Nation community, the nurses—the copy of your vaccination goes to the nursing station, which is run by the federal. So First Nations are standing there and saying, “Where’s my data?” Ontario has become an obstacle in this process. That’s not acceptable when we talk about jurisdiction, and that keeps on happening. I think it’s really important that we need to address some of the issues, some of the legislation, some of the regulations that prevent First Nations taking ownership of the systems that are there.
I know one of the things that’s very clear, though, is that when I’m here trying to speak on behalf of First Nations, on behalf of Kiiwetinoong, I always talk about this, the oppression that First Nations face. I always talk about the colonialism that First Nations communities face. I always talk about the racism that exists within here and that continues to happen.
I’ll say this: I remember asking, about two months ago, about what the plan was for the vaccination rollout for urban Indigenous people. The Premier happened to be sitting there. He got up and he started answering it. But he threw to me that the remote community rollout of the vaccines on the 31 First Nations—he started talking about that. One of the things that he said to me, I remember this distinctly, is he said the First Nations up north were “happy as punch.” I replied, “They’re not happy as punch. There are people dying in these communities.” Then there are two things that he said: that I jumped the line and also the chiefs were unhappy and that I went to a community where I don’t belong. Those three things, at the highest level in Ontario, the highest political level—that’s colonialism. That’s oppression. That’s racism. It’s so clear, and that’s what people face. Just imagine if that was a person at a hospital, a person trying to access services in mental health. That’s the same thing that they face, what we saw that day. Meegwetch.
I think the act that gave a Premier these powers was an overreach, and I maintain that. The Premier and the government seemed insulted that I, as a member of this Legislature, would not just give up my voice or right to vote in representing my constituents to the Premier for a year. Here they are back again, 10 months later, asking for this power for another seven months. According to this government, members of this Legislature should get no vote or say on the emergency powers this government has declared or might declare in future. These extraordinary powers have to be debated and voted on, scrutinized regularly, not the way this government wants it, which is just once a year.
During one of my questions a couple of weeks ago, the Solicitor General took a swipe at me, saying she was going to show me how to do my job. Well, let me inform the Solicitor General and every single government member that by supporting Bill 195 and supporting this motion for another seven months, it is they who are not doing their jobs. It is they who are abdicating their responsibility as members of this Legislature by saying with one vote that they aren’t interested in debating, scrutinizing or voting on emergency powers.
That these members are happy to hand off their responsibilities in representing their constituents to the Premier, to do the job for all of them over the last 10 months and over the next seven months—apparently they’re all here just to get along, wave and smile at the cameras. Perhaps the Solicitor General and the government members should look in the mirror and think about what it is they promised to their constituents when they wanted to get elected and what it is that they thought their jobs were. Because if it wasn’t the basics—if their job wasn’t to vote, debate and scrutinize on laws that are put in force, and they decided instead that the Premier can make all of those decisions—what’s the point of any of them even being here in this Legislature?
Speaker, I’d like to take the opportunity to point out something curious about this motion springing up today. At the very moment this motion was being debated, the Premier—instead of debating and defending his request of this House to extend his one-man rule for another seven months; instead of defending his record over the next 12 months—conducted a press conference to let Ontarians know that, one day in the future, there will be a reopening. At the same time as he is talking reopening, he has his government passing a motion to give him authoritarian emergency rule for another seven months. What the government gives the people with one hand, it certainly takes with the other. This government has been a great example of that motto, and this afternoon is a great example.
We had no advance warning of this motion or debate. Instead of holding the debate and vote sometime in the next two months, closer to the one-year expiry, the government sprang it up today, just before a long weekend, to coincide with the Premier’s press conference. Apparently, the government members couldn’t be bothered to come back in the summer to pass further debate and vote on the emergency powers that they are requesting. They needed to get it done now, before a long weekend, perhaps so that they can enjoy their summers without being bothered by their obligations to this Legislature, while Ontarians struggle. It is no wonder that Ontarians are losing trust in government; look at how government is treating them.
Speaker, as this government is rushing this motion though, it’s important to note and review what has gone wrong for the last year by giving this government the power for this Premier to make closed-door decisions, micromanaging every minute aspect of the lives of Ontarians without the scrutiny of this Legislature. This government is asking us to give them this power without coming forward with a plan to reopen schools, because the Premier says he has been given different opinions from his advisers. Apparently the Premier has requested these powers for another seven months, but isn’t actually the one who’s in charge, which begs the question: Why are we giving this Premier these powers when he isn’t willing to take responsibility or make the tough decisions?
So—no plans for schools reopening. Let’s look at some of the other items this government has refused to take responsibility for. There is no commitment from this government to ensure the OPP and children’s aid are not threatening parents regarding how they parent their children on social distancing or masking. They won’t take responsibility or address the draconian acts they’ve taken against churches that wish to pray in person—a total lack of respect for this. We have seen other jurisdictions and other countries such as the United Kingdom allow churches to gather, even during their most draconian efforts, but not this government—total contempt for the Legislature’s role; total contempt for churches assembling in person.
We have finally heard the government wants to reopen outdoor activities, but of course only at unrealistically small numbers, arbitrary numbers for gathering, without any scientific justification to back these numbers up. These are just some of the examples of areas that this government has failed to address or take responsibility for as they come back today, right before a long weekend, asking for emergency powers—extraordinary, unprecedented powers—for an additional seven months. These orders and powers used by the government, along with the numbers they have arbitrarily come up with this afternoon tied to stages of reopening, need to be scrutinized and debated in this Legislature regularly, not every 10 months or seven months.
Speaker, I would like to conclude by saying that I was concerned about the precedent that we, as elected public servants representing the voters, have set and continue to set for our future generations on how our democracy operates and what our government can and cannot do, but it is clear that with this motion the precedent has been set: a truly unprecedented overreach of government; a power grab that we have never before seen in our 153-year history, and one that is not getting better, but is certainly getting worse from this government—who, again, cannot seem to help themselves, and they are definitely getting tired. These decisions continue to harm the livelihood of Ontario residents and their health. The cure is worse than the disease. And so, as Ontarians lose their freedoms, their jobs, their businesses, their savings, this government has also ensured the loss of their democratic system and their elected members representing them.
Before I begin the debate on this motion, I do want to mention, and a shout-out to, all of the 400-plus workers at the Nestlé plant in my riding who, after some long negotiations yesterday, have reached a tentative agreement with Nestlé.
The majority of the workers there, over 400, are actually permanent employees. Many of them have worked there for many, many years, but they were willing to go on strike on the predominant issue of Nestlé’s attempt to undermine the wages and opportunities for new workers. It really was something. And I’ll tell you, while they were on strike, Nestlé suspended their benefits. They’ve managed to keep the workplace quite safe, I would say, but many of these workers still ended up getting COVID. Some of them are still on leave because of the long-term effects of COVID, and their benefits were suspended.
I want to congratulate everybody who was at the bargaining table on both sides for coming to this tentative agreement. It was wonderful to drop by the picket line this morning and congratulate the workers. We’ll see if they decide to ratify the agreement, but I want to congratulate them and thank them again for their courage in this very difficult moment. They were out on strike for three weeks. Hopefully that will end soon. Congratulations, Unifor 252.
We are here to talk about the extension of emergency orders today, Madam Speaker, and as usual, without much warning from the government, we’ve come in here and—I thought what I would do is talk a little bit about how this government’s mishandling of the COVID pandemic, and particularly the lockdowns and the reopenings and the lockdowns and the reopenings, have impacted people in my community, because it’s been devastating. I know it’s been devastating across the province; there’s no question. There’s not a corner of this province that hasn’t been deeply impacted. But I thought I would share a little bit.
In this House, I have on many occasions raised the concerns of small businesses in my riding—small, independent businesses, predominantly. I’ve talked about the impact of the pandemic in terms of the “for lease” signs now that line the streets in my riding, streets like St. Clair West; Little Italy; Little Portugal on Dundas West; Bloorcourt; Bloordale; up as far north as Eglinton; Queen West; Ossington. These are areas of the city where people come from all over the GTA, actually, to go back to those cafés and those restaurants and those grocery stores that provide the connect back to, in many cases, their home—their home countries where they may have grown up or their grandparents grew up. It’s really heartbreaking to see the loss of some of those businesses, both the long-standing ones and the newer businesses, which were just getting going. It’s really quite heartbreaking.
I’ve raised them here and I’ve sent many, many, many emails to the minister responsible. My staff have worked endlessly to try to advocate for many of these small businesses. Sometimes it’s worked. Most times, we still have obstacles and we’re still trying to jump through these hoops. This government likes to talk about red tape, but, boy, this small business grant program has been just a mess of red tape.
I want to share one letter that I received, because I don’t think I’ve raised it in the House previously. It’s from Amanda Armstrong, who is the owner of Mandala Design. I’m going to read this out to you. It’s a women’s clothing and accessory store on St. Clair West. First of all, I’ll just start by saying she applied during the extended deadline, met all the financial and business eligibility requirements, but got a denial email. She was writing to me, going, “How is this even possible?” She also wrote to Minister Bethlenfalvy as well.
She says: “My business falls squarely into this category. I own a main-street level, independent women’s clothing/accessory store on St. Clair West. I’ve had to close my shop intermittently for over the past year and my sales in 2020 plummeted to less than 60% of sales in 2019. I normally have staff of three to four; however, I’ve had to lay them off and rehire them twice already since the pandemic started. Now that we’re shut down again, I’m not sure where this will leave us if my business is abandoned again by the Ontario government.
“Clearly, the reason I was not approved is not the reason given. I have sent an email,” and she talks about all the things she’s done to try to get this grant, to try to correct this error. She says, “I would love to have a fighting chance at reopening in some real capacity once it’s safe to do so, and this grant would go a long way to making that happen.” Then she thanks us for everything we’re able to do.
I’ve got to tell you, this is just one example in so many; and there are so many businesses, I find as well, that have been completely left out, like the whole maker sector: people who maybe don’t have a shop, but go to the One Of A Kind Show or fairs. They make a living and they employ lots and lots of people. They’re completely left out of this program. I have many of those folks in my riding. Unfortunately, again, it’s just obstacle after obstacle. It’s been extraordinarily frustrating, and I really think the government has failed in this regard.
I want to also talk for a moment about an issue very near and dear to my heart, which is the impact of this whole mismanaged reopening on kids and families. I’ve talked about that at great length here previously, but I want to reiterate again for the government that when the government came out and said, “You know what? We’re going close playgrounds and we’re going to card people”—people in my community and, I think, across this province still can’t quite get over that. I know the government backtracked off that, but really, what it showed was this extraordinary disconnect not only from what are the real issues and priorities and what Ontarians have already given up, but especially what the science table is telling us, what all the experts are telling us.
For kids in my riding and across this province without backyards, for families who live in high rises, outdoor amenities are not just nice to have; they’re essential. I spoke about this earlier this week in terms of my own community, my own experiences in the parks in our community, how important they’ve been. For people in little condos using public parks, using tennis courts and soccer fields, that’s often the only place you have to get a bit of room. To walk and bike is great, but it’s just not enough. So I’m really concerned about that.
We know that at the same time, children have been forced into these online courses. It’s remote emergency distance learning—we get it—but they’re stuck on a screen all day, and they need to play. I also want to mention that the impact of all this in this shift to online learning has been that in many respects, women are predominantly the ones—we know this—who are being forced to leave the workforce as parents and families are overwhelmed. We’re seeing that increasingly.
I want to mention a little bit more about—I know some of my colleagues have mentioned this previously today, but myself and the member from University–Rosedale yesterday introduced a bill that asks the government to centre children, youth and young adults in their COVID recovery plans. I’ve got to tell you, Madam Speaker, this came at about the same time that some of Canada’s top experts and advocates were uniting to talk about the crisis that our kids are in. They’re speaking—very much so—about the mental health-related impact.
I want to just say anecdotally that I don’t know a family at this moment with a child or a teenager or a young adult child who is not struggling to find mental health services for their children. I know families where parents have had to just stop everything they’re doing for weeks and weeks on end to try their best to support their children, even their children who are in university or getting going on their own. The impact this has had, I think, has not really been adequately addressed or acknowledged by this government. So when we talk about this recovery, we need to be talking specifically about resources and programs, plans and policies that reflect the reality they’re in and the very specific challenges that this generation is going to have.
We know that all around the world—UNESCO is calling people here in Ontario, some of our education, mental health, children, learning, etc. etc. experts, and saying, “Help us figure out a plan for the world,” because this is a global issue. Is this government calling on its experts? No, they are not. They are not. It’s not even on their radar. It is astonishing to me that this is a global issue, a global crisis, and right here in Ontario we have the expertise, and this government refuses—refuses—to just make that call and collaborate and come up with solutions.
I’ve got to tell you, before I get into the conversation a bit more about mental health, the issue is economic. The issue is economic; it’s social. If we do not address these issues now, if we do not invest now in providing those mental health supports, those economic supports, the supports that those young people are going need, many of them having now missed that crucial first job or first opportunity, we are going to be paying that price down the road 100%, without question. We will be paying for it in health care costs, in the economic costs, in the cost to government. Somewhere down the road, we will be paying this price. So there’s an economic and fiscal requirement here to pay attention to this issue, and I’m really proud of the bill that we’ve brought forward because I think it proposes some really great tools that the government could use to actually move this forward.
Again, one of the things that was released yesterday when these advocates and experts united to declare #codePINK, one of the things they’ve noticed—and I’ve talked about this in this chamber many times—is that children’s hospitals are reporting a 100% increase in mental health-related admissions. I’m not going share my own stuff, but I’m going to tell you, anecdotally, in talking to many people that I know, where do you go right now? You’ve got a kid in crisis; where do you go? You’ve got no choice. You go to the emergency because it’s that or you wait on a waiting list for months, a year, and any parent in this room—and many of us are parents or grandparents—we know, we will do anything to support our children. That is taking a real toll on our health care system because it costs a whole lot more too, I will tell you, Madam Speaker, to treat that child or youth in emergency than it does to actually provide the kind of community-based care they really need.
School closures, the lack of access to sports and recreational programs and social isolation are resulting in children being one of the hardest-hit populations during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the numbers are really staggering.
Suicide attempt admissions have increased by 100% on average during the pandemic, and that’s coming right from—McMaster Children’s Hospital is reporting a 200% increase.
Admissions for substance use disorders have increased by 200% compared to just to last year, and the use of potentially deadly opioids has increased. This is all from Children’s Healthcare Canada. Seventy per cent of kids aged six to 18 report that the pandemic has harmed their mental health—yep, things like anxiety, attention span. More children and youth are seeking emergency care. There has been a 61% increase in ER visits among children and youth for mental health conditions over the last decade, as I mentioned previously.
Surgical backlogs have increased. Surgeons are now suggesting it could take up to three years to address the backlog. We know that was—the government said we’re going to start doing these non-emergency surgeries now again, but we are so far behind.
And of course, and this is really tragic, child abuse rates have risen very sharply, with a 100% increase in the cases of infants presenting with fractures and head trauma. I want to mention, Madam Speaker, that this is also linked to what we are seeing, of course, with the number of women who are experiencing violence in the home, which organizations and agencies in my community are just completely overwhelmed with right now. They just cannot provide enough support. It is an epidemic, it is devastating and it has absolutely gone through the roof.
These are the kinds of issues that we see, and I urge everybody to check out many of the important materials that they’ve provided and anybody watching this to go to #codePINK and go online and learn about this campaign.
I want to thank everybody: SickKids; Alex Munter, president and CEO of CHEO. I want to just read what he said here. He said, “Children and youth have experienced the pandemic in unique and relentless ways since day one.” “Relentless” is a good word for it. “Prior to COVID-19, Canada had already slipped to 30th out of 38 developed countries for child health and well-being. Kids must be at the centre of Canada’s COVID-19 recovery plans, for the sake of their futures and for the sake of our country’s.”
I want to read to you from a situation that was brought to my attention. I’m not going to read the name, because I don’t have the permission of the woman who she’s referring to here. She says, “I’ve watched you advocate for so many issues and I’m hoping you can add one more, as I would really appreciate it. Due to COVID, many surgeries have been cancelled in hospitals. My 34-year-old niece was set to have her ovaries removed to lower her estrogen level. She was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic cancer and has had chemotherapy treatment, but was ready for the ovary removal as an additional life-saving surgery. The devastation of the cancellation is a lot to bear, and now she must wait as this is in the government’s hands.”
I want to say, Madam Speaker, I think we all know stories like this. We’ve all heard these. Maybe we have people close to us who are going through similar things, and it’s been devastating. I think it’s really important we talk about what are the surgeries and the nature of the kind of surgeries that have been missed here and what the potentially life-threatening implications of that are for a 34-year-old woman. So I wanted to read that into the record.
The Financial Accountability Officer has reported that there will be 419,200 surgeries and 2.5 million diagnostic procedures backlogged in Ontario by September. So I’m glad we’re getting this moving again, but boy, we have got a long way to go.
I’ve only got a couple of more minutes left, so I want to shift to another letter that I received. This one is about the vaccination rollout. Madam Speaker, in my community, we have four hot spot postal codes. Many other people, though, in my community who are not falling under those hot spot postal codes are essential workers, and it has been like The Hunger Games to find out where a vaccine clinic has been operating. We post it every day. We post updates to our websites. Then we send out voice broadcasts and we knock on doors and we drop off leaflets and we put up posters. It is just unbelievable how this is being mismanaged. It is excruciating. I know the members opposite like to always blame the vaccine supply issue, and that’s definitely been a piece of it, but what a nightmare this has been.
This person is saying, “I know there are probably many people reaching out to you and advocating for their need for a vaccine, but after all the media attention about pregnancy and COVID-19, I am feeling the anxiety of being an unvaccinated pregnant individual. I have been deemed an ‘essential worker.’ I own a small business located in the M6N area code, which is a hot-zone neighbourhood. I take transit every day with my two-year-old who goes to daycare in the same hot-zone neighbourhood. My husband works in residential construction. We don’t have the luxury of staying at home.” She’s 22 weeks pregnant. She’s creeping closer to that third trimester, and she says, “I am becoming increasingly more anxious. To be honest, I feel like a sitting duck.”
We’re working really hard to get her and her family vaccinated, but I’ve got to tell you, we should not have to be chasing these vaccines down at this point.
Madam Speaker, I want to thank you and thank everyone who was listening for their attention and urge the government to do better. We cannot afford a fourth lockdown.
Madam Speaker, I’m proud to be seated on this side of the House. I started in this very seat when Parliament first convened, and I’m back. And I couldn’t be more proud to be back, because I looked at myself in the mirror around January 12 or 13 and I said to myself, “What is going to happen to me 10 years from now when I think back to this time, when I think back to the opportunity I had to effect a change?”
All members are reminded that they cannot suggest that they know what a government member or any member is thinking. They can’t impute motive. But by all means, members are able to comment on what is happening in the Legislature.
I return to the member from York Centre.
I had to grapple with the decision of what’s going to happen a number of years—
I return to the member from York Centre with a reminder that—no, there is no reminder. Go ahead. Thank you.
This morning in question period, I cited a report by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network that was issued yesterday. It was conducted together with St. Mike’s hospital and was, in fact, referred to by the Minister of Health this morning. The report concluded that more than 500 additional Ontarians died from overdose in the eight months concluding 2020. From March to December 2020, there was an increase of 75% in overdoses. The mental health crisis perpetuated by the lockdown is of enormous proportions. Compare that figure of 500 people between the ages of 25 to 44 to merely 150 people who tragically passed away from COVID between the ages of 20 to 50. You see, the premise of my argument, the premise against these orders and the premise of my argument against this government has always been that, acting reasonably, a lockdown is generally deadlier than COVID. Yes, COVID is a very serious infection. It’s an interesting infection. Why don’t you guys go and learn what COVID actually does?
We have a million cancer screenings that didn’t happen because of the fearmongering of this government. Can you imagine the resulting repercussions from a million cancer screenings that didn’t happen? And cancer screenings are not random; it’s for folks that are looking for cancer, potentially, given their age and predisposition. We’re going to have more folks die from cancer, undiagnosed cancer, than die from COVID—probably under the age of 70. This is inexcusable. We’re going to have a tsunami of cancer, which is what the director of Princess Margaret hospital described in the letter that I quoted.
We have 270,000 surgeries delayed. I have constituents from other ridings reaching out to me daily, telling me about their cancer surgery being delayed. In fact, there was an article yesterday about a woman who’s not sure if the third delay is still going to stand or if she’s going to be able to get her surgery next week. It’s in today’s media. She wasn’t able to get a phone call. I took her phone call. Her condition should concern everyone in this House. And those are surgeries that are not urgent surgeries. They’re surgeries that are deemed not urgent at the moment, but could develop, God forbid, into something very, very serious. But the government cares not for that. They don’t care about the 260,000 surgeries that they delayed. They don’t care about the million cancer screenings that didn’t happen. They just care to satisfy the political correctness, the political mood that we’re in today that says that all other health conditions don’t matter anymore. Mental health doesn’t matter anymore. Cancer doesn’t matter anymore. The only thing that seems to matter is COVID.
But even on that, they’re failing, because a year later, we know—my first question to the Minister of Health when I was sitting on this side of the House was how many homes already have infection control in place. She didn’t know the answer. I asked her how many homes are short on staffing. She didn’t know the answer. In early January, the Premier had had an opportunity to bring in the Canadian Armed Forces to save lives, and he opted not to do that, because he didn’t want another report. This is again another example of this government putting politics before policy, politics before people.
One of the greatest tragedies we’ve suffered, other than loss of health care, is the mental health implication on all Ontarians. In the week before my letter, I heard from a constituent of mine. He asked me to deliver a letter to the minister of heritage, culture and sport. One of his employees, a mother of five, tried to take her own life. I delivered that letter on his behalf on the weekend before I was ousted from caucus. On the Monday, before I was ousted on the Friday, I had another constituent call me who told me that his mom’s heart surgery—it was a valve replacement surgery—was cancelled, because the hospital couldn’t guarantee a bed, even though the hospital had beds. They saved a hospital bed for a computer-modelled patient who could have arrived that night, except that as I’ve demonstrated multiple times, Ontario’s health care capacity in 2020 and 2021 is better than it has been historically. ICUs perform optimally at 80% to 85%, and that’s where we are roughly. In fact, we barely exceeded the 80% mark for most of this year and most of last year. It is remarkable.
I’ve demonstrated using Ministry of Health numbers that our overall health care capacity is better than in the prior three years. Despite that, the government seems intent on following modelling which proves wrong time and time again, and it’s on the basis of this modelling that the government engages in remarkable decisions.
I brought a number of examples of this because people say, “Well, Roman, if we didn’t do the lockdown, then the numbers would be much higher and the hospitals would be overwhelmed.” But no, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m not saying that the trajectory of cases is wrong, although that is often wrong as well. It’s the anticipation of the hospital response and the death in response to those cases. In other words, they never know what to actually factor the number by. Let me give an example.
Just before the fall preparedness plan, Dr. Brown came before the people of Ontario and said, “Look, today, we have about 80 people in ICU, and if we meet the trajectory that Michigan is on, then we’re going to have over 250 people in ICU by the end of October, for Halloween.” We did, in fact, meet the trajectory. We did meet the case trajectory, but the number of people in ICU was about 85—sorry; about a month and a half earlier, it was about 40. So we meet the trajectory that they’re worried about by way of cases, but we don’t meet the trajectory of hospitalizations and of deaths.
Anyone who’s reasonably looking at the situation would understand a very simple proposition: It’s not about how many cases we get of COVID; it’s about who gets COVID. You can’t extrapolate a COVID case, multiply it by a number of COVID cases and say, this is how many hospitalizations we’re going to have. No, you can’t, because generally young people do not suffer the very same consequences as our elderly, as the vulnerable, as folks in long-term care. So we need to focus protection on those who actually need it instead of continuing with this blind lockdown that has such detrimental effects on Ontarians.
Perhaps one of the key reasons, the main reason, behind my letter to the Premier against the measures and against the very same measures we’re voting on today, is the effect on kids’ mental health. We hear from the Canadian Paediatric Society almost daily. We’re hearing that attempted suicides at McMaster’s Children’s Hospital are triple. We hear that CHEO is out of space. We do have a health care capacity crisis; it’s in mental health is where it is.
It’s shameful that these government members continue to come here every day—or most of them don’t even come here every day and still don’t take constituency calls, because they’re afraid and embarrassed, and yet they seem to simply not care. In fact, with respect, that would be true for almost all of my friends from all recognized parties.
How can we not put children first? We’ve always done that. We’re a civilized, developed western democracy. The kids are not all right. The doctors are telling you that every day. Just before I walked into this House, I saw the Children’s Health Coalition, including CHEO and SickKids, saying the schools must be opened immediately. What do we hear instead? The Premier saying, “Oh, the teachers’ unions—the teachers’ unions are threatening me with an injunction, so I’m not going to open the schools.” What is that? Open the schools.
I heard from so many parents in the week before my letter: My kid is anxious. I don’t recognize my child. My kid is overeating, or my kid is not eating at all. We know from SickKids that there’s a shadow pandemic of eating disorders, but that is of no interest to this government apparently.
All I’m asking for is a fair weighing exercise. I’m not saying forget COVID. I’m not saying let’s leave the situation. I’m saying let’s look at the toll of the pandemic, at the cost of the pandemic, at the health—whether it’s the surgeries missed, the cancer screenings missed, the mental health effects, the overdoses, and let’s weigh that in our public policy response. Just like we would make a medical assessment: Is the cure worse than the disease? If we were to make that assessment, then perhaps we should reassess.
The problem is this government never actually came down from the narrative that it started perpetuating about a year ago. I agreed with the first lockdown. I was one of the greatest proponents. I introduced this government to one of the key doctors who is currently advising this government on the COVID table. I brought him before the chief of staff in mid-March. He said, “We are going to have a disaster here.” We knew that we were in a bad situation in March and April. But we’ve learned so much since.
For me, it was in May when Stanford University came out with a report that the infection rate is about 50 times cases. In other words, for every person in the United States that has COVID, 50 more have not been tested. I said, “This is great news,” because that means that the disease is so common that all the metrics that we’re actually worried about, like hospitalizations and deaths, are 50 times lower.
I brought that to the attention of the government. I brought that to the attention of public health. I asked them to make a key distinction, a distinction that over 80% of people who regretfully passed away from COVID during the first wave were in congregate homes, in long-term-care homes, in retirement homes. And I asked Dr. McKeown. I said, “Is that not a meaningful distinction, that more than 80% of the people who are dying here are in long-term-care homes? Is that not important? Is that not something to consider?” The response was, “Well, the more common it is in the community, the more likely you are to bring it into a home.” What utter nonsense.
We have health care workers—we have workers still going from home to home. All it takes is one worker to bring in COVID for, God forbid, a disaster to ensue. And they still can’t institute infection protocol and control, and instead are locking everybody up.
When we failed with this distinction that more than 80% died in congregate homes, we stopped engaging in one of the most important medical processes there is. It’s called “triage.” When you show up at a hospital, when you show up before a doctor, the doctor looks at you and says, “Who are you? What are you? What are your characteristics? What is your predisposition?” We stopped doing that.
COVID: We keep saying that we want to keep kids safe. The Premier just makes such remarkable comments about that. The kids are not safe from this government. The kids are not safe from the mental health crisis that this government has subjected them to daily. And why? I’m going to conclude with the minute and a half that I have as to why this is happening.
I know that most of these members, if not all of these members, know the catastrophe that they’re perpetuating. And yet, they sit there, guarding their PA-ships, guarding their ministerial portfolios, guarding their seats, thinking they’re going to get re-elected. They won’t have the courage to sit here right next to me. Why not?
Monte Kwinter, my predecessor, who occupied this seat for 32 years, voted against Premier McGuinty in 2006 on a matter that was very, very important to my community. He fell out of favour with the Premier and he lost his ministerial portfolio, but he maintained his dignity—God bless Monte Kwinter—and he was rewarded by my community for the following 15 years. Again, he served for 32 years.
No, they will not admit they’re wrong, because admitting they were wrong will mean that everything they’ve done for the last eight months has been a deadly mistake. That’s why they won’t do it. They never admit they’re wrong until it’s too late, and then they will fold. Whether it’s Taverner or licence plates or class sizes or autism—it doesn’t matter what it is, they will fold, because it’s only a matter of time until the incompetence and the utter insanity of what they’re doing is going to be revealed.
I’m proud to be seated on this side of the House. Shame on these members for not doing the right thing, and putting themselves first.
Let’s see. It’s an honour to rise here today to talk about this motion. It is a motion that I’m very concerned about, but before I get into my remarks, I just want to give a shout-out to so many people in my riding who are helping others to get through this pandemic. I want to give a shout-out to the Chinatown BIA, all the members, but in particular Simon Zhong and Bill Hong, who donated two truckloads of hand sanitizer to community groups in the city of Toronto and two truckloads to a number of other communities across this province. That generous donation is helping to keep people safe through this pandemic. So thank you very much to the Chinatown BIA and to Simon Zhong and Bill Hong for your generous donation.
I also want to thank Spadina-Fort York Community Care Program and the hundreds of volunteers who are working diligently to help people get through this pandemic. The Spadina-Fort York Community Care Program now feeds 1,500 people a week through three different mobile food banks. It also runs a seniors’ food delivery program on Sundays. It helps people without homes. There’s a group of Chinese seniors that it’s also helping as well. They are doing an incredible job.
The other thing that they’ve taken on—they’re now helping people to register for vaccines. They’re registering about 700 people a week for vaccines, helping people to navigate through this vaccine protocol to get their registration. I just want to give a shout-out to the Spadina-Fort York Community Care Program and all of the volunteers who are making it happen.
Today, we’re debating a motion to extend the emergency orders to December 1. The government has the power to issue this motion. Under the powers of Bill 195, which was presented a year ago—Bill 195 was very controversial, and I’ll talk more in detail about it. I’m going to argue that the government should not have given itself the emergency order powers that it did under Bill 195, and that the use of those emergency orders is a violation of the democratic rights of the people of Ontario.
But before I get into those remarks, I’m going to tell a brief story. This one takes place on a farm, so I’m going to dedicate it to my colleague from Timiskaming–Cochrane. I’ll also give a shout-out to the member from Perth-Wellington, because I believe you are also a farmer, if I’m right—yes; okay. You’ll appreciate this story. It’s a story about a strand of barbed wire and a two-by-four.
In the early 1980s, I was on an exchange program. They were eight Canadians and eight people from Sri Lanka. We were all partnered up, and my Sri Lanka partner and I were posted to a dairy farm just outside of Binbrook, Ontario. We worked on the farm. It was one of the best experiences of my life. We were working long, long days because dairy farmers work—all farmers, but dairy farmers work extremely hard, and we were also eating really well. In my three months on that farm, I actually put on 25 pounds. I went in as a scrawny kid and I came out pretty much the weight that I am today. So I certainly appreciate that.
But there was one point, when we were working on the farm, that my Sri Lankan partner and I were walking across the field and we had to climb over a fence. The fence had a two-by-four nailed on its side, from post to post, and at about 16 inches over the two-by-four, there was a single strand of barbed wire. I put my left hand on the post and my left foot on the two-by-four, and I swung my right foot over this barbed wire and put it on the two-by-four.
It was at this moment, when I was in that very precarious position—I don’t know who put that two-by-four up, and I don’t know how long it had been there, but at that moment, the two-by-four cracked, it split, and I started to fall. Thank goodness the survival instinct kicked in, because I was able to roll off, and although the barbed wire cut my leg, there was no other damage done at that point.
I see some people laughing,
The reason that I’m telling this story is that I’m going to talk about our democracy in terms of that two-by-four that you depend upon to help you through precarious positions, that it’s really important to make sure that we maintain the strength of our democracy. That’s going to be the gist of my remarks today.
When I think about the democracy in this Legislature—when I was first elected in 2018, I had a long conversation with the member from Timmins. He’s been here for 30 years, like you, Mr. Speaker. I believe there are three of you who have been here since 1990. He was telling me stories about the Legislature and the role of democracy in this Legislature. He said that in the 1970s and early 1980s, when Bill Davis was the Premier, the opposition had the power to filibuster. So if the government wanted to get through a piece of legislation, they had to work with the opposition parties. He said that the government House leader at the time would sit down with the opposition House leaders, and the government House leader would say, “Look, we want to get these four bills through before Christmas. What’s it going to take?” And the opposition would say, “Well, look, these bills are okay,” or “This one is okay, but we want you to make these amendments. This one we don’t really like, but we can live with it, so we’ll argue it, we’ll debate against it, but we’ll let it go through. And we want this other piece to go through.” So there was a bit of back and forth.
But the beauty of it was that it was a true Parliament. The idea of this place is that we’re supposed to be conversing back and forth. Each of us, in the 124 ridings that we represent, brings a different perspective and different understanding of the needs of the people of this province and a different vision of how it should go forward. We should be working collaboratively in deciding on the vision and the direction of this province.
What has happened since then, though, is that there has been this slow, steady erosion of our democratic process in this House. It starts with omnibus bills. I will criticize this government, because almost every bill it brings is an omnibus bill. An omnibus bill is a bill that deals with multiple unrelated issues in one bill, and it’s almost impossible, as a member of the opposition, to focus on one particular issue. There may be some things in the bill that are good and other things that are not good. The problem is that the media doesn’t catch it. The opposition will know what’s good and what’s bad in those bills, but it’s very hard for us to have a real public debate about the bills.
Then we get into this kind of political game-playing. One of the things that happened—for example, Bill 257 was passed recently. For the most part, the first two schedules of that bill are about expanding broadband to rural and remote communities, particularly in northern Ontario. This is a need that is desperate across this province, because we all need access to broadband. So those two schedules of the bill, we in the opposition—in fact, all the opposition parties—really supported those two schedules.
The third schedule was a schedule that retroactively made an MZO legal, because the government had gotten a legal opinion that a couple of the MZOs that it had issued to tear down heritage properties and to pave over wetlands breached their legal obligations under the environmental act and the heritage act to consult with communities before those were actually passed. So in order to retroactively make them legal, they stuck this schedule onto what was otherwise a good bill.
Then what happens in the House here is we often hear, “The opposition, the NDP, voted against broadband.” We never voted against broadband; we were fully supportive of expanding broadband. But what we didn’t support was retroactively changing the law to make an MZO legal that had initially been in breach of the environmental act and the heritage act. So omnibus bills are part of the erosion of our democratic process here.
The other thing that’s a part of that is committee consultation. Committee consultation is where we pass a bill through the first and second readings in the House here, and then it goes to committee. Committee is an opportunity for people from across the province who are interested in that particular issue or who have expertise to come and speak to the MPPs about that legislation and give us insights about what’s good or what’s not good in that bill so that we can improve that legislation. But the government has changed the standing orders so that they can rush through legislation really, really quickly.
I’ll give you one example. Sometimes the legislation has been rushed through so quickly that the committee had no ability to advertise that the second reading vote was the same day as the deadline to request to appear; for example—and I know that may not have been that clear—Bill 108, the More Homes, More Choice Act. The second reading vote was on May 29, after question period. The deadline to the request to appear was May 29 at 1:30. So there was a one-hour window in which people who wanted to speak to that bill could apply through the legislative process to speak at committee—a one-hour window. So unless you were sitting by the phone, watching that vote, it basically made it impossible for people to be able to come and speak to committee, and that also is an erosion of our democratic process.
The overall argument that I would make is that we need to strengthen, not weaken, our democracy. Weakening our democracy through these omnibus bills and not allowing people to speak at committee, it’s like—you know that two-by-four that I told you I was straddling at one point? It’s like taking a saw out to that two-by-four, and every day you just run the saw once back and forth and then you go—you just keep doing it over and over, and eventually that two-by-four, which I will say represents democracy in this metaphor, collapses and just breaks, and then we’re all in a very precarious position.
I am a member of the New Democratic Party. This is not a new party; in fact, this party is 60 years old. But part of the attraction for me to the New Democratic Party is that it believes in a new kind of democracy, one that is more inclusive of everybody and that gives more and more people a voice in the decisions that are going to affect their lives. One of the things that I strongly feel is that we need to change the first-past-the-post democratic system. We need to go to proportional representation. Because the current government—the Conservative Party in the last election got 40% of the vote but they have 100% of the power. So they don’t really have the democratic mandate, but under our parliamentary system, they have an absolute power to do whatever they want for these four years, even if it breaches the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as we saw—and I’ll speak more to it later. They can use the “notwithstanding” clause to breach the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of the people of Ontario.
Bill 195 was passed a year ago, and it gives this government the power to extend the emergency orders. It used to be, under the emergency act, the government could extend the emergency orders, but they had to come back to the Legislature every three months in order to renew those emergency orders again. The government gave itself the power to extend those emergency orders for a year at a time, and just come back once a year. And this was so offensive to some members of the House that the member from Cambridge, who was a Conservative at the time, voted against it, because she felt that it—actually, I won’t impute motive. She argued at the time that this was a breach of the democratic responsibility. The member from Cambridge and I have very different views on most issues in politics, but I admire her strong and principled stance to protect the democracy of this province by not supporting Bill 195, which basically gives the government the power to rule by fiat through these emergency orders for a year at a time in perpetuity. That is a real attack on our democracy, and Bill 195 does need to be repealed.
Bill 195, when it was passed, was also opposed by a number of the unions because it gives the government the power to override collective bargaining rights. The Ontario Federation of Labour, which represents 54 unions and one million workers in Ontario, said that the “Conservatives’ proposed Bill 195, giving themselves special powers and reducing public oversight of emergency orders, will undermine democracy and workers’ rights....
“‘Bill 195 must not go forward. It is a blatant and unfettered power grab by the’” Ontario “‘Conservatives; a bid to give themselves carte blanche to skirt their democratic responsibilities,’ said OFL President Patty Coates. ‘In crises, public accountability is more important than ever. There are already legislative processes for extending emergency orders as necessary to protect the health of Ontarians. This government has used emergency orders to undermine collective agreements instead of legislating decent work laws that would create permanent improvements in health and safety in our province.’”
CUPE president Fred Hahn said, “The ... Conservatives’ proposed legislation” on Bill 195 extending “emergency order powers will give the province significant powers at the expense of front-line workers.”
Candace Rennick, the secretary treasurer of CUPE Ontario, says, “Emergency orders and the power to make immediate decisions to defend against a public health crisis are supposed to be temporary.”
This bill, Bill 195, should never have been passed, and we should not be now debating a motion to extend these emergency orders using the powers that the government gave itself through Bill 195.
And I’ll give you one other example of the abuse of these emergency orders: the noise bylaw. One of the emergency orders the government issued was to override the city of Toronto’s noise bylaw, and so now, construction noise can take place between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. A year ago, when the government introduced this emergency order, they said this was to build field hospitals and other emergency structures that would be needed if our hospitals got overrun, but they applied it to all construction projects happening, and they have never revoked it. So right now, between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m., construction can happen in the city of Toronto. It is driving some of my constituents crazy, because at 6 a.m.—and sometimes the trucks are lining up at 5:30 a.m.—the construction noise starts. We have a stay-at-home order, so these people are forced by law to stay at home, and at the same time, the government has overridden the noise bylaw.
I can tell you, I phoned a resident one time, a constituent, a while ago. They were complaining about the construction noise. I phoned them up, and there was jackhammering outside of their condo. It was so loud that they had to step into the corridor so that we could actually have a conversation, and this was during the stay-at-home order, which we’re still under. Can you imagine being stuck in your condo or in your apartment and there’s jackhammering going on outside that can start at 6 a.m. and go to 11 p.m.? You think about the mental health impacts on the residents of this city and of this province. This was never necessary. This is not emergency construction. This has nothing to do with the pandemic. It’s just regular construction, so there’s no need for this order.
A year ago, I wrote an article for Now Magazine about Bill 195. I wrote: “Last month” the Conservative majority “gave themselves the power to govern through emergency order.
“Bill 195 was rushed through the Legislature in the middle of the summer under cover of a global pandemic while” the Premier “was on a tour of southwestern Ontario.
“Some took notice.
“The usually” Conservative-friendly “National Post’s editorial called the passage of emergency powers ‘an unjustified violation of our Charter-protected rights.’
“The Canadian Civil Liberties Association labelled it as ‘a grab for more permanent emergency powers while cutting democratic controls.’
One Conservative MPP, the member from Cambridge “to her credit ... stated that ‘at its core, Bill 195 takes away the Legislature’s ability to vote on the use of extraordinary emergency powers.’” And for that stand, she was kicked out of the Conservative caucus. In fact, we had today two former Conservative members speaking against the undemocratic actions of this government, including this motion, which is enabled by Bill 195.
I will conclude by saying, every generation has to fight for the democracy that we inherit. It is not just something that we inherit and we keep; it’s something that we need to continue fighting for. It’s one thing that should unite all of the members of this House. We should leave the democratic processes of this Legislature stronger than when we inherited them. But over the last three years, there has been a steady erosion, and we need to reverse that erosion.
Report continues in volume B.
top | new search