It has seemed that regular political behaviour has been somewhat modified over the last months, as governments dealt with the pandemic that has changed many of the rules of engagement for politicians, unions, and others. But last Tuesday, Premier Ford was the target of sharp condemnation by a number of organisations and unions, and even from within his own caucus, with the passing of Bill 195, officially now the “Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act, 2020″.
Before it was passed, the proposed legislation had led to protests outside hospitals throughout Ontario, as the very frontline workers that Ford has been so keen to praise for their self-sacrifice were angered that the legislation gives power to the Premier to continue the emergency measures imposed due to Covid-19 for another two years, without having to have it approved by the Legislative Assembly. The Premier can extend emergency orders every 30 days for another two years through sweeping powers that override many aspects of the government’s functions and longstanding legislation.
For hospital and healthcare workers, this means that the emergency measures can remain in place, even though the pandemic may be in remission, or even disappear completely. This would mean that workers could be laid off, or be forced to take on shift changes with no notice even if they don’t have child care.
The Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) called the day “a dark day” for the province’s registered nurses and health-care professionals, and ONA President, Vicki McKenna, condemned the way the act came into force:
“This government has bypassed democratic process and rammed through Bills 195 and 197. Bill 195, the creatively named Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19 Act) provides extensive powers to override collective agreements and take away the rights of our nurses and health-care professionals who have been working so hard to provide care during the pandemic.”
She questioned whether the legislation had much to do with the economy and wondered if it had more to do with watering down the regulations and red tape which the Ontario Government were so keen to cut before the pandemic hit.
The ONA and CUPE, union of health workers, are asking the provincial government to respect the contribution they have made to fight the pandemic. Ontario has one of the highest rates of health care worker illness and death to COVID -19 of any country in the world. 6,200 have caught the virus at work and 14 have died.
“We know that Ontarians have been very supportive of health care workers throughout the pandemic. We believe they will join with us in pressuring the government to have our rights restored now that coronavirus is in remission. The ongoing suspension of these rights is an attack on the constitutional rights and the quality of life of these workers,” says Michael Hurley, President of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU), the hospital division of CUPE.
Premier Ford faced opposition within his own caucus, when Conservative MPP Belinda Karahalios was ejected from the PC Caucus after she voted against the legislation. In a statement to the media, MPP Karahalios wrote “Bill 195 essentially silences every single Ontario MPP on the most important issue facing our legislature today.”
Premier Ford rejected all these arguments and allegations regarding his motives in passing the legislation, calling it “a piece of legislation that is critical, absolutely, to protect the health and well-being of the people of Ontario. This legislation is number one fully transparent, I’m here, a lot of orders have stopped, some we have to continue. One example, is to make sure we have to give flexibility to hospitals, long-term care folks for staff, making sure we keep electricity rates affordable when they are working at home and businesses. When this [COVID-19 developments] is moving rapidly, we can’t wait three weeks, four weeks in some cases, to call back the legislature and move it forward”.