Premier Doug Ford speaks during question period at Queen's Park, February 20, 2019. (Photo, Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
This year has already seen plenty of activity from Premier Doug Ford. From promises to overhaul the Ontario Autism Program to a health care “transformation” and unanswered questions about cutting class sizes, here’s what Ontario’s divisive government has been up to lately—and what it could mean for the province.
Health and Long Term Care Minister Christine Elliott announced provincial health care changes on February 26. The new system will dissolve 14 LHINS—which plan, integrate, and fund local health care—and merge them with the six provincial health agencies into one super agency called Ontario Health. Elliott said the move is an attempt to streamline a “complicated system,” and that it will take a few years to complete.
Under this new central agency, as many as 50 regional Ontario Health Teams (responsible for as many as 300,000 patients each) will “connect health care providers and services around patients and families.” The goal, according to a Ministry of Health press release: to better facilitate patient transitions between various local health care providers—such as hospitals and home care providers—and streamline health records and care plans.
As part of the health legislation, the government also pledged a $3.8 billion investment in long-term care for seniors and addiction services. As well, patients will, the government says, have improved access to secure digital tools such as health records.
In a statement, Elliott said that the measures outlined in the new legislation should reduce wait times and end hallway health care.
The Liberal government released a gender-based violence strategy last year, committing to a 30 percent increase in funding to rape crisis centres. However, funding wasn't transferred before the 2018 election campaign began, and it was frozen as soon as Ford’s government took office. Advocates have urged the Ford government to follow through with the Liberal’s commitment, but in February, Attorney General Caroline Mulroney announced that instead the government would give the centres a one-time increase of $1,ooo,ooo—less than what the Liberals had promised. Fewer funds means centres cannot hire additional front-line workers to keep up with what one advocate calls "explosive demand" for sexual assault support services.
In an effort to cut wait times, the Ford government introduced a “childhood budget” for families of children with autism to use on therapy programs until a child turns 18. Previously, Kathleen Wynne’s government attempted to shorten wait times by giving parents the option to wait for government-funded services or get funding for private therapists.
Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, Lisa MacLeod, proposed a new plan. Depending on when kids enter the Ontario Autism Program and how much their family makes (to receive full funding, a household must make under $55,000 a year), they will be eligible for a maximum of $140,000 with annual funds capped at $20,000 until their child is six, when he or she will only be eligible for $5,000 in funding a year. Wynne's program offered more funding, but had a long wait list. From there, parents can decide on their own which services to purchase with the funds.
MacLeod says the newer changes to the program are part of her commitment to get the 23,000 children off the program’s wait list for behavioural services by giving families the funds for services directly. However, treatment for just one year of autism therapy can cost over half the maximum possible funds. Parents worry that they will have to seek more expensive services for when their allotted funds run out. Many were upset because needs aren’t solely contingent on age, and because, they say, simply clearing the backlog means less therapy and decreasing the overall quality of treatment per child.
After an intense month and a half of backlash, the PCs have reneged on the sliding income plan and will now instead offer families no matter their income an annual $20,000 for children under six and then $5,000 per year after they've turned six. She also confirmed that kids already receiving public therapy can continue their treatment until the end of their plan, and will have the option for renewal for another six months.
Leaked documents to The Toronto Star also revealed that the Ford government asked autism service providers “to stop admitting new children to therapy” last September (even though providers told The Star that they had the capacity to help additional kids). MacLeod’s office responded to the report with a statement saying that there were never instructions to freeze the wait list.
After Wynne’s government passed reforms to reduce cash-for-access fundraising, companies could no longer buy tables at political fundraisers for their employees and it became harder to move tickets. But Doug Ford seemingly found a way around this issue, according to The Toronto Star, which reported that the Ontario Conservatives “enlisted high-powered lobbying firms" to help sell tickets to a recent $1,250 a plate event—touted as the largest fundraiser in party history. As the Star points out, "the use of lobbyists to help politicians raise money, when they in turn often seek help from politicians, could be perceived as troubling.” And The Globe & Mail reported that some lobbyists felt pressured to sell tickets, fearing that they would lose high-level access to government officials if they did not.
Last fall, the PCs announced a plan to cut the position of Ontario Child Advocate, a watchdog organization for vulnerable youth which is independent from the government. In February, it was confirmed that the Thunder Bay-based provincial office of the Child and Youth Advocate is closing (date TBD) as a result. The move has received backlash from a local MPP who says "children and youth in care across the northwest, including Indigenous communities, will have nowhere to turn."
Ontario's Ombudsman—an independent office of the legislature—is absorbing some of the Child Advocate's duties, and is launching a new child and youth unit.
Earlier this year, Blair threatened to sue Ford for defamation. His lawyers alleged that Ford damaged Blair's reputation when Ford accused him of breaking the Police Services Act by speaking out against the hiring of Ford family friend Robert Taverner for the role of OPP commissioner (which Blair was in the running for). Blair was fired on March 4, and issued a statement standing by his decision to speak up on "real and/or perceived political interference." Later that week, Taverner sent a letter to the Community Safety Minister, Sylvia Jones, withdrawing from the OPP commissioner role because there was too much controversy.
Two days later, Thomas Carrique, currently the deputy chief for York Regional Police, was announced as the next commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police. Carrique said he has never met the premier and has no relationship with him or his family. On March 20, the Ontario integrity commissioner ruled that Ford did not break any conflict of interest rules when he appointed Taverner.
Blair launched a legal challenge in an attempt to force the Ontario Ombudsman to probe Taverner’s hiring, and Ontario's Divisional Court is expected to hear the case in April. Court documents filed to support Blair's claim that Ford interfered in police business include internal emails that show the premier's office asked the OPP to purchase a "larger camper type vehicle'' and have it modified, with the costs associated with the vehicle "kept off the books.'' (According to the premier’s office, nothing was actually purchased.)
Established in 2017 in response to complaints that the Ontario Municipal Board— which dealt with development proposal appeals—favoured developers, the Local Planning Appeal Support System Centre (LPASC) was meant to help make development and land use planning in the province more accessible to members of the public. It offered services such as guidance on the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (the OMB’s less powerful replacement) procedures to create a “more fair and affordable land use planning system.” The Ontario government has decided that LPASC will no longer accept new service requests from the public during the “wind down period” as it wraps up previous requests and completely shuts down on June 30. Toronto councillor Mike Layton commented on Twitter that the LPASC closure “hands power directly to developers."
Earlier this year, the provincial government proposed cutting family doctors’ salaries because it said family doctors were making too much for working “part-time hours.” The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) already had a rocky relationship with Wynne’s government—who implemented fee cuts in 2015—making Ford’s proposed cuts especially fraught. The OMA quickly responded to the PC government’s audits, arguing that the numbers did not adequately represent how much work doctors do. With the current family health organization system, doctors might see fewer patients because they will treat them for multiple conditions at a time. This system was implemented in 2007 to update the old “fee-for-service” system, which had doctors seeing more patients but with shorter visits.
On February 19, an arbitrator ruled in favour of a pay increase for Ontario doctors by at least 3.5 per cent over the course of a four-year agreement.
The government—Hydro One's largest single shareh0lder—has directed Hydro One to cap its CEO’s pay at $1,500,000 a year. (It had previously refused to put the CEO salary below $2,775,000.) Hydro One is currently looking for a new CEO after Ford pushed out its old CEO and board of directors after he was elected last year, in line with the PC's promise to cut electricity bills by 12 percent.
Ford’s government has called Bill 175 “anti-police” and said it would cause mistrust between the public and the police, so the government paused the Bill before it could come into effect. According to Attorney General Caroline Mulroney, the PC government’s proposed new Comprehensive Ontario Police Services Act (COPS — get it?), is intended to “streamline and strengthen” the Special Investigation Unit’s process and overhaul the Police Service Act.
Mulroney criticized Bill 175’s expanded SIU mandate for wasting time and resources on non-criminal conduct and treating police officers “like a suspect.”
Listen to CityNews Queen's Park reporter Cynthia Mulligan talk about the Ontario battle over autism funding on The Big Story podcast.
Learn more at The Big Story Podcast.
A proposal to cut kindergarten and primary (grades one to three) class-size caps drew immediate concerns from teacher and education worker groups. On March 15, the government announced that they will not be cutting caps for primary grades after all. Grades four through eight will also keep the same capped average of 24.5 students, but the funded average class size will increase from 23.84 to 24.5.
High school sizes, however, will be increased from 22 to 28—which is closer to other averages across Canada. A TDSB memo says the increase could lead to 800 education workers losing their jobs, according to Global News. Education minister Lisa Thompson justified this budget cut on CBC's Metro Morning by saying larger class sizes will help kids that are "lacking resiliency".
As for full-day kindergarten, earlier rumours that the Ontario government was reconsidering full-day kindergarten had the government recommitting to “full-day learning” for kids ages four to five. But CBC Toronto confirmed with the Ministry of Education that while this means children will be able to attend some form of a learning environment, consultations are still ongoing as to whether that will be kindergarten or something else.
Schools will also have a new sex-ed curriculum that will replace an interim teaching plan based on 1998 materials brought in last year after the Progressive Conservatives repealed a 2015 curriculum from the previous Liberal government. The Liberal curriculum addressed consent, online bullying, sexting, same-sex relationships and gender identity. The government said the new document will teach students about consent in Grades 2 and 3, and gender identity and gender expression in Grade 8. It is also emphasizing that the new document will include teaching on abstinence, lessons on cannabis and earlier discussions on body image.
The province said parents will still be able to opt out of having their kids exposed to certain topics in the sex-ed class, and the ministry will issue online modules for those who want guidance on discussing those topics at home. The full curriculum is expected to be released in May and implemented in September.
Ontario high schools will also receive a revised curriculum on First Nations, Metis and Inuit studies, which the province said was developed in collaboration with Indigenous partners. That document is also scheduled to be released in May and put in place by the next school year.
The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) operates subways and buses in the city, but Ford wants the province to take over the subway system. It’s part of his plan to “invest and improve transit systems” across Ontario. Toronto would remain in charge of day-to-day subway operations and keep the revenue, while the provincial government would take over building and maintenance of new subway lines. However, transit operators and riders are now worried that if the province takes control of the subway system away from the city, it might face privatization, which could mean higher fares and service cuts. A subway upload would also give the province more oversight as to how the city is planned—and may delay plans for a downtown relief line.
On March 26, the province sent a letter to the city of Toronto, outlining its plans for Toronto transit. Notably, they have proposed different ideas than the city—including a three-stop extension (instead of one) in Scarborough, moving the Eglinton Crosstown light rail transit primarily underground, making the Relief Line South free-standing so it is not reliant on Line 2.
Debate over Bill 66—the “Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act”—is heating up as it goes through its second hearing in late February. The Tories say they want to eliminate “red tape” they say is slowing business in the province. But critics are slamming the bill for doing things like increasing the maximum number of children that at-home child care providers can care for. Bill 66 also proposes repealing the rule that makes it mandatory for employers to post workers’ rights posters in the workplace, and ministerial oversight of overtime hours (worker representatives worry this could lead to employees feeling pressured to take on unwanted extra work). Environmentally, the government has changed its mind about the proposal to open up the Greenbelt to development, but it still wants to repeal the Toxic Reductions Act that made facilities publicly report what toxins they use to the province.
With files from the Canadian Press and FLARE
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