“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

Readers may have to search their childhood memories to recall this movie quotation. It is a line from the 1939 classic children’s movie The Wizard of Oz. The line comes from the scene where Dorothy, Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man have an audience with the powerful-looking, giant floating head. The foursome felt dwarfed and overwhelmed speaking to the all-wise and powerful wizard. They were so fearful and desperate that they were ready to take his words at face value and flee. But, as everyone knows, Dorothy’s little dog, Toto, saves the day and exposes the true identity of the all-knowing and powerful wizard. Even as children, we all understood the purpose of the diminutive old man. He had a secret to hide that he could not afford for the citizens of Oz to learn that might destabilize his power and position.

Fast forward to 2023 in Ontario, where we face an ongoing, snowballing crisis in our healthcare system. This is not news to anyone. We are witnessing an onset of anguish and suffering that we have not seen in generations. Some situations have even led to potentially avoidable deaths.

So, I am now thinking that Premier Ford is reprising the character of the giant floating head in The Wizard of Oz, saying, “Pay no attention to what is going on behind Ontario’s healthcare curtain.” If he has such confidence in his privatize Ontario’s healthcare system, why is he knowingly causing so much needless anguish and outright suffering in people’s lives? If it is so good, why is he veiling what he is doing behind a curtain?

One of the government’s most significant challenges is a severe shortage of doctors and nurses throughout the province. According to the Ontario Nurses Association, Ontario needs 25,000 qualified nurses right now. And it is the responsibility of the government to develop an effective strategy that will address the shortage, both now and in the future.

Obviously, Ontario is starving for nurses and has a limited pool available. So, they are broadening their nets to try to pull in healthcare workers from across the country. But currently, it takes at least 18 months for out-of-province qualifications to be checked and approved. That is why Premier Ford and Health Minister Sylvia Jones recently announced, with great fanfare, that the government plans to remove qualification barriers that prevent or delay hiring healthcare professionals whose qualifications were earned outside Ontario. That is a considerable reduction to the current 18 months or more timeframe.

To be sure, many healthcare advocates and the NDP applaud this move. Ontario can’t honestly claim to have the country’s only acceptable medical training standards. At the media announcement, Mr. Ford told out-of-province healthcare workers, “If you have been thinking about making Ontario your new home, now is the time to make the move. We are waiting with open arms.”

This is a significant step in the right direction. But we cannot stop there. It is a good idea to amend the qualification barriers that discourage nurses from leaving jobs in other provinces to come work here. Those considering relocating will look for improved hourly wages, working conditions and affordable housing. However, it will take a juicy carrot to make it worthwhile for healthcare workers to consider packing up their entire lives and families to move to Ontario.

Bill 124 is a major hurdle because it has capped nurses’ and other public sector workers’ wages to just a 1 percent increase since 2019.

The Province has known all along that Bill 124 posed a significant hurdle for hospitals to adequately staff our facilities. And for years, the Ford government refused to admit that their anti-worker, wage-capping bill intensified the staffing crisis in our hospitals. As we all know, Ontario labour unions took the Ford government to court over Bill 124, maintaining that it was an unconstitutional limitation on fair labour negotiations. The courts struck down the act and declared it no longer a law in Ontario.

The ruling confirmed what labour unions had told the Premier all along. “Bill 124 is unconstitutional.” So, given the clarity of this decision, what message is the Ontario government relaying by announcing they will appeal the ruling? Out-of-province nurses and healthcare workers don’t need an MRI, x-ray machine, or heart monitor to see what is in Premier Ford’s heart and mind. His actions speak louder than words. Why would healthcare workers choose to relocate to a place that underpays, overworks and disrespects hospital staff? Therein lies the weakness of Premier Ford’s solution of dropping qualification barriers.

All Ontarians have paid the price for Ford’s wage-capping Bill 124 — just look at the staffing crises that have hit our hospitals and schools. Thousands of workers have left because they felt overworked, underpaid and disrespected.

Enough is enough. Real people are experiencing anguish, sorrow, fear, and pain as they or their loved ones suffer.

Premier Ford must stop trying to hide his long-term objectives and disguising his actions behind a curtain of secrecy. Instead, he must be transparent and accountable to Ontarians and let them assess the situation themselves. It’s time for the Conservatives to step away from their influential deep-pocket supporters and instead think of the welfare of Ontarians.

It’s time to treat our healthcare workers with the dignity and respect they have demonstrated with their loyalty and commitment to their patients.

The Ontario NDP is committed to ensuring that Queen’s Park always respects workers’ rights and that the health and welfare of all Ontarians is the first and foremost consideration, not politics — today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.

There’s no time left for distractions and tricks. It is time for Premier Ford to stop politically hiding his healthcare privatization agendas behind curtains. We need Toto to come to Queen’s Park to pull back Doug Fords curtain to expose the Conservatives real healthcare agenda.

As always, please feel free to contact my office about these issues or any other provincial matters. You can reach my constituency office by email at [email protected] or by phone at 705-461-9710 or Toll-free at 1-800-831-1899.

Mike Mantha