Federal government sending health-care workers to Ontario, other provinces rallying support

Federal government sending health-care workers to Ontario, other provinces rallying support

The federal government is extending help to Ontario and this time the province is accepting it graciously.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Sunday that the federal government will be sending health-care workers from departments including national defence and immigration "to the front lines in Ontario, specifically the GTA where the situation is most critical."

In a statement Sunday evening, a spokesperson for deputy premier and Health Minister Christine Elliott expressed gratitude.

“As Ontario, like other provinces and jurisdictions around the world, battles a third wave of COVID-19 driven by variants, we are grateful for the support of the federal government," said Alexandra Hilkene. "We continue to take the necessary actions to expand capacity in our health care system and enhance public health measures to limit mobility and to ensure Ontarians can stay home. We will continue to work with all levels of government and health care partners to protect the health and safety of Ontarians and combat this deadly virus."

The help comes as Ontario's health-care system is under immense pressure from the skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and serious illnesses and the Doug Ford government is facing intense political pressure over his handling of the pandemic.

The prime minister revealed the support in an online video, speaking directly to Canadians, with details later confirmed by four of his cabinet ministers at a press conference.

"Canadians across the country aren't just watching the situation closely, they're springing up to help," said Trudeau. "There are provinces that have managed their health-care capacity for their own local situation and have the ability to lend a hand to others."

Trudeau said the premiers of Nova Scotia, PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador have also agreed to send health human resources and equipment to Ontario and the federal government will cover the cost and air transportation for staff. The premiers of the Yukon, Northwest Territories and New Brunswick have also been involved in discussions about how their jurisdictions can help, he said.

According to Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc, Dr. Allison Furey, wife of Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador Andrew Furey, will be one of the front-line medical workers assisting Ontario. However, the federal government hasn't fully determined exactly how many health-care workers with what training will be sent, said Health Minister Patty Hajdu.

The federal government will also deploy rapid tests to hot spots in Ontario for essential workers and workplaces by working "directly with municipalities" — i.e. bypassing the provincial government, which has until now been responsible for distributing tests procured by the federal government. "This will make sure that the tests we deliver get used in the place they're needed most," Trudeau said.

The federal government will also be extending the field hospitals erected in Toronto and Hamilton to create even more beds; giving the province a greater supply of needed drugs including Tocilizumab, a which treats severe pneumonia in COVID-19 patients; as well as signing $46 million agreement to expand virtual health-care in Ontario.

The Canadian Armed Forces is also working to determine what support it can provide and Red Cross also has mobile teams ready to assist Ontario with vaccinations but the premier has refused that support.

While the federal government has been reaching out directly to the premiers of other provinces that may help Ontario, Ford was not part of the discussions — Ontario's point person was Elliott, according to the federal government.

The relationship between Ford and the Trudeau government appears to have become increasingly strained, a marked departure from early in the pandemic when the premier was lauded for overcoming partisanship and forming a close working relationship with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. Lately, the intergovernmental relationship has been marked by duelling accusals of responsibility for the speed of the vaccine rollout, with Ford constantly bemoaning a lack of supply from the federal government and federal officials frequently noted the million-plus doses Ontario has received but not yet administered.

That dynamic was clear in the premier's office statement confirming Ontario is refusing Red Cross vaccination teams: “While we appreciate the Prime Minister’s offer, unless it is matched with an increase in supply, we do not need the Red Cross at this time for the administration of vaccines in Ontario. We do not have a capacity issue, we have a supply issue.”

Legislature may adjourn

Meanwhile, the Ontario NDP raised concerns on Sunday that the Ford government is planning to shut down the legislature.

The NDP alerted the media about discussions between the parties about how to make the operation of Queen's Park safer, with the opposition parties calling for a shift to a virtual parliament and the government responding with a proposal to shut down the business of the legislature entirely mid next week.

"We are prepared to discuss how we can run the legislature with the minimum number of staff and MPPs, and with the strictest possible health protocols. We are not prepared to help Doug Ford go home, leaving a police-state in place while he allows COVID-19 to run rampant, overrun hospitals, and steal the lives of Ontarians who would otherwise make it through this," said Leader Andrea Horwath in a press release.

An email shared with QP Briefing show the government house leader's office proposed a modified schedule for next week that requested all MPPs grant unanimous consent to pass the government's budget bill and extend the province's declaration of emergency order on Monday and Tuesday, followed by an adjournment with no return date specified.

However, the government house leader's office replied by saying a virtual parliament wouldn't significantly reduce the number of staff required to work at the legislative precinct — it would mostly benefit MPPs by allowing them to stay in their ridings.

"It has become clear the NDP are only concerned with protecting politicians," said the statement from Paul Calandra's office. "We are extremely disappointed that the NDP are trying to gain political points instead of protecting the health and safety of the individuals who support the important work of parliament."

The statement promised the house would session this coming week but made no promises beyond that.

The government is set to debate the budget bill and should be able to pass it by the end of the week without the co-operation of opposition politicians. It could also use its majority to adjourn the house, over objections from the opposition, without having to prorogue and reset the legislative agenda.

The move was slammed by all three opposition parties, all of whom called on the government to resume business remote and legislate paid sick days for Ontarians.

"This is confirmation that Doug Ford has lost the plot, is in a complete crisis, and is hiding from the people of Ontario. He needs to go before he causes any more damage," said Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca.

Liberal House Leader John Fraser told QP Briefing he was disappointed that the government has given the opposition parties no documentation of their efforts to run a legislative parliament or back up their claim that it would only reduce the legislative assembly staff by 12. "We're not doing for them everything we need to be doing and that's what you should be doing as employers," he said.

Green Leader Mike Schreiner said he's willing to work across party lines to find a safe solution to allow the work of the legislature to continue.

"We should not suspend the legislature until we have laws in place for safe workplaces in order to reduce the spread of COVID19 especially after the nonsensical decisions the government made on Friday," said Schreiner. "This includes legislated paid sick days, prioritizing vulnerable workers for vaccines and paid time off for vaccination, mandated medical PPE and rapid testing, and closing workplaces that are not truly essential."

The upheaval comes after, for the fourth time in as many weeks, the government has been forced to change course on the pandemic response: implementing a stay-at-home order after initially refusing to, changing its vaccination plan one day after releasing it, closing schools one day after insisting they would remain open, and finally reversing to extremely unpopular decisions announced Friday to close playgrounds and allow police to conduct random stops to enforce public health laws.

The discontent extended to within the Progressive Conservative ranks: Global reports on a letter PC MPP Christina Mitas wrote to her caucus mates saying those decisions were not only against the advice of the province's health advisers but also causing backlash among the public.

Meanwhile, there has been a shakeup in the premier's office. Travis Kann, who was promoted into the premier's office from Elliott's staff, will become Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Communications as of tomorrow, replacing Dan Miles, who is being reassigned.

Jessica Smith Cross

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