By: Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The first speech addressed to a new session of Ontario’s legislature is meant to highlight the government’s renewed priorities after a break, and Monday’s remarks from the Doug Ford government were disheartening to some for what they did not include.
Eight months shy of a provincial election and delayed by a federal vote this summer, the throne speech broadly spoke of COVID-19 recovery but lacked any mention of education, child care, or climate change, opposition politicians noted in their response.
“The entire speech from the throne, not one mention of the word education,” said the Liberals’ Steven Del Duca. “We just came out of a federal election campaign where the people of Ontario overwhelmingly supported $10-a-day licensed child care, nothing in today’s speech about that for the families of Ontario.”
It was the first day back at the provincial legislature since June, around the same time the premier and his education minister were telling Ontario’s two million students to learn from home for one more month (all schools in the province were closed from April until September).
In the meantime, a federal election was called, and Ontario announced a vaccine passport that was implemented after the return of a Trudeau minority government in Ottawa.
Meanwhile, Ford has largely removed himself from the public eye. On Monday, the premier sent Government House Leader Paul Calandra out alone to take questions from the media following the delivery of the speech by Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, in which the government said economic recovery would be fuelled by growth, including in infrastructure projects for roads and transit, not spending cuts or tax hikes.
“I think it demonstrates a real weakness on his part, that he’s afraid to talk to all of you, he’s afraid to face the people of Ontario, he’s afraid to be in the legislature,” said Del Duca, who doesn’t have a seat at Queen’s Park himself after his party’s 2018 rout and seeks the attention he says Ford has avoided for months.
Del Duca is jostling for position with the NDP’s Andrea Horwath, the leader of the official Opposition, which is also hoping to present itself as the primary alternative to the governing Progressive Conservatives, who face the voters in less than a year.
“This throne speech was an opportunity to talk about health care, our children’s schools, small businesses, because they need support,” Horwath said, noting an $800-million budget cut for education.
“They need support to get through the rest of this pandemic safely and come back strong,” she said, adding Ford has withheld a total of $5.6 billion in COVID-19 money over this past year, referring to the amount the government underspent in 2020-21, a fiscal year that ended before the third wave peaked.
The Greens’ Mike Schreiner decried the government’s lack of ambition in the speech.
“Absolutely no vision about what a post-pandemic world can look like,” he said. “Nothing about the housing crisis, nothing about the climate crisis.
“I was hoping to hear a commitment that Ontario would bring in $10-a-day child care,” he said.
Ontario is one of only three provinces that had yet to reach a deal with Ottawa over subsidized $10-a-day child care when the federal election was called, along with Alberta and New Brunswick. The latter has since struck a deal.
Following the throne speech, Calandra also had to swat off questions about the PC MPP for Durham, Lindsey Park, who was demoted on Friday, but not ousted, from caucus after it emerged she misrepresented her vaccination status.
Ford had told his MPPs to get vaccinated or be booted in August unless they had a signed medical exemption. One did, and one left, and one had not disclosed her unvaccinated status.
“That wasn’t properly communicated to myself, to the whip, or to the premier’s office, and as a result, Ms. Park has been removed from her job as a parliamentary assistant (to the attorney general), but yes obviously does remain in caucus, and we hope that she will continue to contribute,” he said.
The province’s vaccine policy mandates proof of two approved doses for anyone wishing to remain in certain indoor spaces, including the Queen’s Park building, with very few exemptions.
The party had earlier booted Chatham-Kent-Leamington MPP Rick Nicholls from caucus after he refused to get the shot, and on Monday, the government said it plans to put forward Bill Walker, the party whip, to replace him as deputy speaker.
Horwath said she’s almost certain all 40 NDP MPPs are vaccinated, as did Del Duca of the Liberals for their smaller cohort.
“It’s just not even imaginable that anybody in the NDP caucus would flagrantly refuse to get vaccinated and then lie about it,” she said.