'It changed everything': Pandemic prompts science table adviser to seek Ontario Liberal Party nomination

‘It changed everything’: Pandemic prompts science table adviser to seek Ontario Liberal Party nomination

Nathan Stall, a member of the province's COVID-19 science advisory table, is taking the leap into politics, seeking the Ontario Liberal Party nomination in Toronto–St. Paul's.

The pandemic changed everything for the people Stall cares for — he's a geriatrician with the Sinai Health System and older adults have borne the brunt of the virus.

In the early days of the pandemic, he authored groundbreaking research on the cause of catastrophic outbreaks in Ontario's long-term care homes that tied the tendency for bigger, deadlier outbreaks to occur in for-profit homes to their overcrowded outdated infrastructure, which influenced government policy.

He became a member of the province's science advisory table and a public advocate for older people, speaking out in the media about how the Ontario government and society at large were failing them.

And that's what prompted him to run for the nomination.

"And it changed everything for me personally, seeing that I could be out there publicly advocating for something and advising, and trying to exact change and to protect vulnerable individuals," Stall told QP Briefing. "And that's something that I see coming out of this, the greatest opportunity for me to further that work as a public office. And that's why I've decided to do this."

He acknowledged the downsides that can come with entering political life and that stop some people from running — including a loss of privacy and a toll on your time and family life. Stall, who will turn 35 next month, is the father of soon-to-be-four-year-old twins.

But he added that in some ways, engaging in public life throughout the pandemic has prepared him for the worst.

"During the pandemic, taking a stand on issues, putting myself out there, I've also seen what the sort of darker side can look like, where people can come after you, can impugn your reputation, can try and, you know, knock you down," he said. "It makes me sort of sad to say this, but it did sort of thicken my skin a bit to say, 'I can sort of take this, I'm confident in myself and my values and what I stand for and the change that I want to see. I'm also aware of my blind spots, and I have enough people in my circle that can I can rely on for advice.'"

Stall said he's running for a Liberal nomination because he holds Liberal values and has always voted that way, even though he hasn't engaged in party politics. He's running in St. Paul's — a riding that was held by another Liberal doctor, former health minister Eric Hoskins, for years until the New Democrats picked it up in 2018 — because it's his home.

His first contact with the Ontario Liberal Party came through his work on long-term care. MPP John Fraser reached out to him to advise him and leader Steven Del Duca. The provincial health minister, Christine Elliott, had done the same. But with the Liberals, he turned conversation at some point to what it might be like for him to run.

One thing that made the decision to run difficult was contemplating the loss of his identity as "Nathan Stall, the objective expert," to "Nathan Stall, partisan hack," he said, only half-joking.

When the news of Stall's nomination candidacy leaked out this week, he got some questions about whether or not it is appropriate for him to remain on the provincial science table. He says that it is — the table offers advice based on science and research and its 40 members have the intellectual freedom to hold and express views outside of that work, which is why you'll see some commenting in the media on their views on the government's management of the pandemic.

"I'm there to provide expertise on older adults and those living in congregate care settings," he said. "I'm not there to take information and spin it into some partisan viewpoint for the benefit of the Liberals. I'm there to continue in service to the people of Ontario, which I think is a valuable role for the management of pandemic, politics or no politics."

And Stall spoke out before coming out as a Liberal.

For instance, at a Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario event in November, Stall said it had been hard to watch the ongoing loss of life and suffering in long-term care homes be met with complacency. He spoke passionately about what he sees as the moral failing of the province's pandemic strategy and Premier Doug Ford's tendency to publicly empathize with the plight of small business owners while resisting implementing restrictions that would have prevented deaths among older adults and residents of long-term care.

"If older adults were valued equally, arguments to compromise public health for economic reasons or resist small sacrifices of personal autonomy would ring hollow," he said at the time. "I really question, if that's what's driving the inaction we're seeing with ... and why we are failing to act to protect older adults and those long-term care settings."

"It seems to me when they continue to say, 'We need balance,' that they accept the deaths of these long-term care residents as somewhat of an acceptable cost of doing business," said Stall. "And that's very provocative to say but I'm starting to believe that, and I see no evidence to the contrary."

Seeking to "balance" the pandemic and the economy ultimately harmed those same business owners the government was seemingly trying to protect, kept kids out of school, and led to loss of life, he said.

Prior to entering politics, Stall had said in interviews with QP Briefing and elsewhere, that governments over decades bear responsibly for the tragedies that occurred in long-term care during the pandemic — and that includes the party he's seeking a nomination for today. However, he said he is satisfied with the public statements the party has made acknowledging the failures and he plans to continue advocating to improve the lives of older adults and residents of long-term care.

"Yes, I'm entering a political role, but whoever the party is that wins needs to acknowledge there is a lot of blame across party lines," he said, "but it would be an absolute moral failure if we did not fix the system that continues, frankly, to be in crisis."

Jessica Smith Cross

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