News from the Park – Ineffective and mixed messaging about COVID-19

When I was a boy, a friend of my mom lived a few doors down the street. From my youthful perspective at that time, I thought she was pretty old. It’s funny though because as I think of her today, I now have the funny feeling that she wasn’t all that old really. I can’t imagine why my concept of age has changed over the years. Hmph….

Anyway, back to the story, I recall her telling Mom and me many, many times that she didn’t need to listen to the weather on the radio. She said as the stiffness and pain increased and decreased in her knees and shoulders was a more accurate barometer for pending weather than any report from weather forecasters. Well, after nearly ten years of learning the ropes as an MPP, I too have developed my own way to “forecast” the political atmosphere, simply by monitoring the rise and fall in the number and type of phone calls, emails and letters that my office receives from constituents with comments and requests for assistance. Right now my office barometer tells me that clearly the public concern, confusion and frustration are on the upswing, right in sync with the government’s response to the ups and downs of the pandemic case reports.

Think of Ontario as a ship for a moment and the premier captains the ship and the Good Ship Ontario is the largest vessel in Canada. Everyone knows that the larger the ship, the more planning and forecasting it takes to navigate the waters effectively and safely for everyone’s benefit and enjoyment. Large vessels cannot afford to react to last moment situations. They don’t exactly stop or turn on a dime. So the captain, his navigator, his engineer and all of the officers have to have a plan laid out well in advance and know where they are going. Not only do they have to know but the entire crew and passengers needs to know and be confident in the direction and route planned out. They also need to know the captain has his eye on the sky, anticipating variable conditions and communicating the path to all on board so that everyone can be prepared and make the sailing as smooth and safe as possible.

Andrea Horwath and the NDP know our role is not to just rubber stamp whatever policies that the government proposes but rather to look at things from alternative points of view and offer informed, positive suggestions on how to improve things for the people of Ontario. New Democrats are honouring our commitment to propose ideas, not just oppose.

Back in June everyone knew that, come fall, Ontario would need to be well prepared to make necessary adjustments to Education. Health officials had learned valuable lessons such as one of the most effective weapons we have at our disposal to fight COVID-19 is social distancing. All summer long, and even now, the NDP has proposed hiring more teachers and taking steps to ensure social distancing protocols are enforced. As well we advised that the need to access high-speed broadband internet would greatly exceed its capability, especially knowing that enforcing 2 metre social distancing in classrooms was not in fact going to be possible.

Like I said, you can’t turn a huge cruise ship on a dime. Doug Ford set his priorities on saving a buck rather than saving lives. He and Minister Leece sat on their hands and waited until the last moment to react to conditions as they arose in the education sector. School boards and teachers were on the edge of their seats waiting for direction from the Ministry right up to the eleventh hour.

The Government did not act to ensure bus drivers and students would be safe to travel by bus and insisted on normal capacity loads. They did not act to ensure social distancing policies were implemented choosing instead to cram too many students into classes. The Government did not ensure they funded or hired enough teachers to meet the demand for online classes. Even now across the entire province there are students who have not even had an online teacher assigned to them. And the Government did not act to ensure that families in rural and Northern communities have access to adequate, affordable high-speed broadband service if they were fearful to send their children on crowded busses into crowded classes without social distancing.

My office barometer is making it loud and clear that the people of Algoma-Manitoulin, just like the rest of Ontario, are getting frustrated, weary and leery of the direction Doug Ford is taking them in terms of COVID-19. People want their government to speak and lead with confidence, understanding, compassion and science based knowledge and planning. But when I look at the number and type of calls, emails and letters that my office is receiving, it is clear that the fluctuating policies, mixed messaging and poor communication emanating from the Ford Conservatives is leading to mounting confusion and frustration.

A prime example of ineffective and mixed messaging is the advice given by Premier Ford himself about celebrating Thanksgiving. The Province once again changed the maximum number of people gathering to 10 indoors and 25 outdoors. Then the premier said in the same media session that no one should be gathering for dinner that did not live under the same roof all the time. My office was flooded with calls for clarification on whether the rules applied only to hot spots or the entire province. Also was the limit actually 10 and 25 or was the rule that no one that is not a fulltime resident of the home could gather? And then what about restaurants and bars?
Earlier Ford promised that the Government’s highest priority is the safety of our children and that they would provide whatever funding that is necessary to ensure that returning to classrooms would be safe. Then when schools and boards said they don’t have the funding they need to open more classes and hire more teachers to keep numbers down, Ford refused the requests for funding until he figured out that their policy was not working. The Conservatives clearly believe saving a buck is a higher priority than saving a life.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

All along, New Democrats have been proposing innovative ideas including opening up existing empty or under used spaces in schools to create more classrooms and lower class sizes. We say that the government needs to hire many more teachers and education workers and custodians. We need to install or replace antiquated ventilation systems. And for years we have said it is time to bring 21st Century broadband service and technology to Northern Ontario. It’s only now that the government is beginning to realize how devastating their procrastination has been to Northerners.

Like thousands of people in Algoma-Manitoulin, I say it is time to stop playing politics with people’s lives. That’s why we are proud to be sharing the NDP’s new Save Main Street plan. It is a positive proposal that will help get Ontario business and our families back on their feet with money that they earn in their pockets rather than just envelopes of bailout funding. It is a proposal that will keep business open, paying rent, wages and taxes that stay in our communities ensuring confidence and growth.

My barometer tells me it’s time for the government and all politicians to step up and do everything they can to navigate this province into healthy, safe and prosperous waters.
As always, please feel free to contact my office about these issues, or any other provincial matters

Mike Mantha