Hot Off The Press

The ONW Salon: Is Ontario’s Latest Shutdown Enough?

Susanna Kelley (Moderator): Quebec has entered a strict lockdown while Ontario is being criticized as too lax, not protecting essential workers and letting hospitals teeter near capacity. Meanwhile schools in a number of areas, such as Toronto and Peel, closed to in-person learning. Is Ontario’s shutdown enough to battle the third wave of COVID-19?

Chris Loreto:

Ontario, like many other jurisdictions around the world, is in the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and that is why the Ontario government, in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer of Health, imposed a provincewide “emergency brake” this past weekend.

The third wave is not unique to Ontario. This wave is hitting harder because variants are now accounting for a significant portion of new cases. According to the WHO, in Europe, the variant first found in Britain is spreading significantly in at least 27 European countries and is now dominant in Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal.

All of these jurisdictions are putting on emergency brakes — either by delaying the lifting of restrictions or re-imposing lockdown restrictions.

This latest province-wide lockdown is attempting to stop the rapid transmission of COVID-19 variants in communities, protect hospital capacity and save lives.

Is this lockdown enough? Being from Peel, I have really only known lockdown since November. It has been a long and tough road.

I do think provincial efforts are appropriate. The government has to balance fighting the third wave and the risk it poses with increasing public restlessness from over a year of reduced freedom.

Some will point to the pictures from the weekend with crowded malls as evidence that the lockdown measures are insufficient. The question we have to ask is why weren’t measures taken in these instances to manage the flow of customers in these settings? We all have to be accountable for how we are adhering to the measures despite the fatigue and frustration we are all feeling.

We all need to be responsible citizens as we fight this third wave.

Sarbjit Kaur:

The latest shutdown is too little too late.

It's like Groundhog Day. We keep suffering under repeated lockdowns because we're opening up too early each time or not dealing with the hot spots and real sources of outbreaks.

Now we're in lockdown again and malls are open, some schools are open, workplaces with thousands of employees are operating.

It's not a lockdown. What's the point?

We're just dragging this out and now with the variants out there, hospitals are overwhelmed and workers who've already been through what they may have thought was the worst of it are under tremendous pressure again.

The optimism of looking forward to spring, a smooth vaccine rollout and a return to "normal" has given way to fear, finger pointing and frustration.

Decision makers have known for some time that regions like Peel and Toronto, particularly where there are high numbers of workers who can't work from home such as those in food processing plants, warehouse workers, factory workers, taxi and transit drivers etc., are hot spots.  Focusing on closing small businesses and gyms but keeping schools and huge congregate workplaces open was obviously not going to be effective.

It finally took Peel's Medical Officer of Health to close down an Amazon warehouse after over 600 COVID-19 cases and they've shut down their schools as well.

Municipalities having to take these measures on their own due to lack of provincial action points to dysfunction and failure on the lockdown front.

Fred Hahn:

This is actually the first wave of the variants of COVID-19.

We need to shift our plans and pivot to save lives.

That’s not what we are seeing from the Ford Conservatives. Doug Ford walked us into this lockdown — or emergency brake, or whatever we are calling it — with eyes wide open.

While experts were warning him of explosive growth of more infectious and more deadly

variants, he cancelled public health protections. He marched us right into grave danger.

It should never have come to this. This wave didn’t have to be this horrific.

The “shutdown” is too little and too late. It’s the same failed approach Ford has already been taking.

This is not about individual bad actors; people are doing what we are allowed to do. This is about failed political leadership.

The public health measures fall far short of what experts say are needed. It’s full of more mixed messaging. There are no financial supports for communities, people or small businesses.

There are no paid sick days, and no comprehensive testing in essential workplaces.

There is no cap on class sizes so kids can socially distance in schools. There is no comprehensive plan to get the vaccine to essential workers and no paid time off to get the shot.

We desperately need more — and Ontario desperately deserves better.

Chris Loreto:

I really wrestle with all of this. I find it hard to be partisan on this whole issue. I think it is tough for political leaders to satisfy anyone in this environment.

Ford is being criticized for not doing enough. But only a few weeks ago Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie was arguing that Mississauga should be separated from Peel and put into Red. Then the Chief Medical Officer for Peel shuts all the schools down.

You can't win for trying. The environment is moving too fast. It is hard fighting an invisible enemy.

I think the government was right not to fully shut down retail this time. Retailers have taken too many punches in all of this. The lockdown before Christmas was devastating for many. Part of helping our retailers is to make sure we are only shopping when we absolutely have to.

Some will argue that we should close down the malls and big box stores. No one ever really considers what kind of panic this may cause in the population. For many, big box stores are where they shop to feed and clothe their families. We need to have some level of openness as we drive to get people vaccinated.

We need to ramp up vaccinations. Where the province can do better is targeting vaccinations. I think we need to move from the age cohorts to focus on vulnerable communities and workers. My son works in a grocery store. He should be getting a shot.

If we have empty vaccinations centres, we need to move more quickly to get others in who are ready. We may also need to move from a “come to us”, to “we’ll go to you” vaccination approach. This seems to have worked in long-term care where the first wave of vaccinations was focused — the number of cases and deaths have reduced significantly.

Sarbjit Kaur:

Understanding these are uncharted waters, nobody is expecting perfection.

However, we've been to this shutdown rodeo a few times now and should know when it’s not working. And we've seen other countries and parts of Canada get back to normal by being tough and getting to COVID-19 zero before opening up again. They've been quick to apply emergency measures as necessary as well as when experiencing setbacks.

We seem to want to wait and be in denial until everyone is ringing alarm bells and finally the government will act.

Worst of all we're seeing more deaths. There's no excuse for putting retail workers, teachers, transit and taxi drivers and so many others who aren't able to work from home at risk. A real lockdown would protect everyone and also get us to COVID-19 zero faster.

For sure people are frustrated. But if we're going to do a lockdown again — can we get it right? Or be more strategic with our vaccination rollout if we insist on keeping things open and putting those who have no choice but to be exposed at risk?

I agree with Chris about vaccinations being part of this. My daughter also works in a grocery store. The trade-off for keeping things open should be some protection for workers — who are also often spreaders as they interact with other workers and multiple customers. 

I don't know that we can count on malls etc. for enforcement but a combination of a better lockdown (why not close down all schools when spring break is coming?) and more strategic vaccinations would be very helpful.

Not sure this government is capable. Like I said, nobody expects perfection but mobile vaccinations and going to hot spots are some obvious tactics that just don't seem to have been planned for.

Fred Hahn:

This isn't about being partisan. Any leader of any party that messed this up this badly would be held to account.

It is the lack of a clear province wide plan that is causing some to go off on their own — and the mixed messages about the economy being more important than public health.

There are over one million doses of vaccine in storage and many more on the way — we need a plan to get that into the arms of essential workers — in grocery stores, factories, schools, community services — now.

Over the weekend I saw a Tweet saying there are six COVID-19 cases in long-term care — six. This proves vaccination works. But we don't have an accelerated vaccination plan at all — and that, at this point, is just unacceptable.

And yes, community and small business were hurt by a total shut down. They are not the problem. Malls, huge big box stores — that’s where we have seen the huge crowds.

But if the Conservatives are not willing to enforce actual standards then what do we do? Keep blaming people who are only doing what the government is telling them they are allowed to do?

There are so many who have been calling clearly and strongly for paid sick days — past leaders of the Conservative Party, now mayors, unions, coalitions, everyday folks — and yet there is an ideological block at Queen's Park, and that means we will see more preventable deaths.

This is not the time for half measures — we had close to or over 3,000 cases a day over the weekend — but on Tuesday a press conference to give us an update on progress and new measures told us nothing, except wait for Wednesday ... maybe ...

We are all exhausted — the members of my union who have been on the front lines of this are exhausted — and days like these just add to the mental stress we are all feeling.

We deserve more. We need more.

Chris Loreto is the 1st Vice President of the Ontario PC Party and previously served as Chief of Staff to Ontario’s Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Native Affairs in the Harris government. He is currently Principal at StrategyCorp.  Fred Hahn is the President of CUPE Ontario, working for legislative, policy and political changes affecting public service, equality and empowered communities across the country. He is a veteran supporter of the NDP. Sarbjit Kaur has worked in Liberal politics for 20 years, including as Director of Communications to a cabinet minister in the McGuinty government. She is a former journalist and currently co-founder of KPW Communications.

Richard Mahoney:

Well our esteemed moderator Susanna asks a question to which I wished I knew an easy answer.

First of all, while many have not tuned into this campaign, and others have complained that is about nothing, that is far from the truth.

The stakes are very high in this campaign. And more than one political party has put an ambitious agenda forward.

On the issue of climate change alone, we have ambitious plans from three parties in this election. Those plans, realistic or not, are meant to address an existential threat to the future of human life on the planet, so it is hard to conclude this campaign is about “nothing”. And that is just one of many issues raised in this campaign.

And while It won’t surprise Tausha, or anyone else, to hear me say that the Conservatives have essentially thrown in the towel on that issue — I would argue they are not even trying to make people think they have a serious plan — there are other issues that all parties are addressing in their own way.

Conservatives have focused on affordability, which is undeniably important and I believe is part of a fundamental problem in all industrialized countries today — that of income equality and the fact that the spoils of record economic growth here and elsewhere do not get shared widely and leave many of our citizens behind and struggling.

So, there are two big issues being addressed. But they are being addressed in a nasty cauldron of hate, more pronounced and visible to us because of social media. I would argue that the drift to the right by the Conservative Party, away from its history as a centre right party, has increased this. But, to be fair to them, that is not the only cause, and may just be a symptom.

There is a polarizing anger at those who would rule us, borne perhaps partly out of the notion that only elites are benefiting from the new economy, borne by disappointment in our leaders for not doing more, and exacerbated by the hatred of many for Prime Minister Trudeau and all that he represents.

Mix that altogether with the threats to part of our economy posed by a shift to renewable fuels and the regional tensions that involves, throw in some resentment at the changes and fear that follows from some foundational shifts going on in the areas of racial and gender equality, and you have a toxic stew on your hands.

Leaders like Trudeau, who are associated with one side of all of that debate, are bound to face the fury of those who push back against it.

There is no easy way to make this all improve, as we have seen it in U.S. elections, provincial elections and elections around the world.

Tom Parkin:

Well, I’m going to push back on this line of questioning. This is election is not a nothingburger and nor has it been especially divisive.

This may turn out to be an important election, possibly the first one in Canadian history in which both the Conservatives and Liberals will not win more than one-third of the popular vote.

We had a false majority parliament and a 100% Harper-power government. Then we had a false majority parliament with a 100% Trudeau-power government. Both ended in deep disappointment.

In 2015 the Conservatives earned 32% support; that is about where they sit in the polls now. And after Trudeau’s split with Jody Wilson-Raybould, a pipeline purchase, a discovery of multiple blackface events and continuing litigation against Indigenous kids, the credibility of the Liberal party is very low.

Mr. Trudeau promised so much. Then he spent four years working for people at the very top, while people’s urgent needs grew more urgent. Rent. Transit and traffic. Cell service costs. Out-of-pocket medical costs. Trudeau’s priority was working for the rich and powerful, not the Canadian people. Trudeau hasn’t earned Canadians’ vote.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is personable and clear-spoken. He has great policy. But most important, he is tapping into the realization that Andrew Scheer and Justin Trudeau are more interested in a fight against each other for power than fighting to solve the problems Canadians face.

So, this is not a nothingburger. Widespread rejection of both the Liberals and Conservatives is not a nothingburger. It’s a verdict.

Now we will have a period of minority — and I am very confident that with whatever power Canadians give to Jagmeet Singh, he will be on an equal footing with the others, fighting to solve Canadians’ problems.

Unlike the Liberals and Conservatives, New Democrats aren’t in this to float in the flow of power. We want to improve people’s lives. It looks like Singh and his MPs will have some power to get some results — the chance to score some goals for Canadians.

I am also proud of my party and Canadians for accepting Jagmeet Singh with such love — it says a lot about us and our future, and that makes me very, very happy.

Tausha Michaud:

I think social media has exacerbated the toxicity in politics. You cannot have meaningful debate on social platforms, and for some reason social channels seem to bring out the worst behaviour in people.

I also think we have also entered a time in our society where heightened emotion is drowning out our ability to have conversations with each other. About anything, much less politics.

As people become increasingly critical of individual decision making, it appears the result is that people stop talking about their choices/decisions. I think this was clear during the last U.S. election — people stopped talking about whom they were going to vote for because they did not want to hear people’s opinions or be berated for making a particular choice.

I do agree with Richard that political parties are trying to put ideas out there. Campaign platforms are dense documents and with each election, there is an increasing amount of detail. But the problem is nobody takes the time to read them.

People want to know why politicians, of all stripes, use talking points: it’s because they are battling for people to pay attention for 10-15 seconds. That is hardly enough time to have a meaningful debate on anything.

Further, political parties should have a broad base of thinking and supporters with distinct perspective and histories — these varying experiences are what should shape good public policy.

But sharing individual perspective has become a scary business because of today’s climate. If someone questions the federal government’s approach on immigration, they are by default labeled as a racist. If someone suggests that governments could find program efficiencies, they are only interested in gutting public services. If someone feels the environment should be a priority, they are an out of touch city-diot. If someone wears a yellow vest, they are an extremist. The list goes on.

Richard Mahoney:

Tom’s sunny but relentless partisanship is impressive but doesn’t do much to shed any light on the question.

I agree this is not a nothing election. But who could blame the public for thinking sometimes that it is about nothing when parties fail to debate ideas in any way, but rather just throw polemics at each other?

Tom says Trudeau just worked for “people at the very top.” That is nonsense. Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of people who have been swept out of poverty by the new Canada Child Benefit.

Wouldn’t we be better off if the NDP were arguing how to further improve that program, rather than denying it even happened? What about the vastly improved and increased Canada Pension Plan? Younger Canadians, those under 45 or so, who now face an economy where there isn’t secure employment for life, will see their pension almost double. Why wouldn’t the NDP champion a further expansion of that radical reform rather than pretend it didn’t happen?

He mentions a pipeline — that is true — that same pipeline that was championed by the best NDP Premier this country has seen in a long time? Is that the same one? And didn’t she agree to put a price on carbon in Alberta in response, as well agree to a hard cap on emissions? I could go on.

This is an election campaign and partisans want to get their messages off. But it doesn’t help when we are not debating issues and measures that might help Canadians but instead just screaming at each other with over the top sound bites.

So how do we get back to that? Is the world, and our country, too polarized to do so? I don’t know. I think Tausha is on to something when she says that we have entered a time where it has become more difficult to have conversations with each other about — anything, not just politics.

But I know this. If we made our discussions a little more respectful, that’d help. If we made our leaders debate in a format that allowed them to dig in a little more than 45 seconds each to explain their plan for climate change, that’d be good.

And if we stopped rewarding politicians for doing the things we say we don’t like — partisan excess, saying the other guy is corrupt, terrible, and a disgrace to the human race, if we made it more difficult for shadowy groups to motivate opinion on our social media with fake news character assassinations, maybe we’d get better behaviour. From most of us, anyway.

Tom Parkin:

My Liberal and Conservative friends on this panel want to play up the idea this is a divisive campaign with a polarized electorate. But with five parties likely to elect MPs to the next Parliament, the evidence is Canadians are not polarized. They are disappointed and looking for alternatives.

It’s not the mass of Canadian people who are divisive — though I’d never argue there aren’t awful and nasty people out there. But they are a small group.

What drives division are the Liberal and Conservative parties. It’s what they’ve always done to maintain political control in Canada — using fear. But this time it’s not working.

On Wednesday Justin Trudeau was practically campaigning for Andrew Scheer, saying he was on the verge of winning government. But it’s not working because we all know the Conservatives are nowhere close to winning a majority — they’re only about where they were when they lost the last election.

But Trudeau needs to create the fear because he can’t win people’s vote on his record or promises. Fear of a Scheer majority is all Trudeau has. But this time people aren’t falling for it.

First, it would absolutely morally wrong to give Justin Trudeau a “strategic” vote as a reward for breaking his promise to end strategic voting through electoral reform.

Second, the last time people did a “strategic” vote, it didn’t turn out very well. Trudeau took their vote and used it to work for people at the very top, letting the urgent problems of Canadians grow more urgent. It didn’t work. People didn’t get what they needed.

Third, we can see Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives are nowhere close to winning. And every day, his disapproval rating rises.

This time, Canadians aren’t accepting that they need to settle for less than what they deserve. Because what Canadians deserve is a government that works for them, trying to solve their problems. And they will only get that with Jagmeet Singh.

If local NDP candidates get enough votes, they will win. And if enough NDP MPs win, Jagmeet Singh will be our Prime Minister.

But whatever the result, with whatever power people give him, Jagmeet Singh will work to bring people together and solve the problems holding them back.

That’s not what Liberal and Conservatives want.

But tough. Jagmeet Singh doesn’t work for those guys — he wants to work for the Canadian people. And Canadians are responding to the message.

Tausha Michaud:

Realistically, the political arena is not the only place where nastiness is rearing its ugly head.

I think this is also an issue outside of politics — take bullying in schools as an example. Unfortunately, bullying is not a new phenomenon, but I do feel it has been aggravated and intensified by the rise of social media. Younger generations, in particular, rarely communicate in interpersonal ways — it is all online.

I think there needs to be a serious discussion, both inside and outside of politics, about why communication online has become so “nasty.”

This is a difficult topic and I have no clear answer, but I think it’s a good sign that we are at least sharing our perspectives in a respectful fashion.

Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. Tausha Michaud is a Conservative strategist who started her career working for the Ontario PC Party at Queen’s Park. She is a former Senior Advisor and Chief of Staff to the Honourable Erin O’Toole and is now a Director at McMillan Vantage Policy Group in Toronto. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist, columnist and a frequent commentator on national issues.

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