After a year of challenges like no other in the past 100 years, conditions are finally lining up to allow 2021 to be one of renewal and recovery. By this time next year, I am optimistic that we will be well on our way to remaking our region to be one of the best places in the world to live, work, and raise a family.
Any reflection of 2020 should start with our front-line workers’ tremendous sacrifice and tireless hard work, especially early on when so little was known about the virus and its health impacts. Without them, it is hard to imagine how any of our communities could have coped with the demands of trying to protect everyone while slowing the spread of COVID-19. There were so many selfless acts of kindness, from the simple checking in on the well-being of others, to picking up their groceries, and more.
The most shocking realization of this past year was how little of our country’s emergency supplies were manufactured here in Canada. Everything from facemasks to ventilators and other critical medical supplies were no longer produced here, creating severe obstacles as we navigated through the early stages of this pandemic. Premier Ford committed to changing this critical shortfall, stating that we would never again be forced to rely on foreign manufacturers and their governments for our vital supplies. Through our Ontario Together program, funding was provided to encourage the re-tooling required to produce these urgently needed products. As a result, we are already receiving personal protection equipment (PPE), ventilators, sanitizing supplies, and more, from Ontario manufacturers.
Dr David Williams, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer, has been guiding Premier Doug Ford and his Cabinet to protect all Ontarians. Specific guidelines and funding continue to safeguard vulnerable populations, allow employees to continue working, students to continue their education, and to assist businesses in maintaining their operations. With our recent budget passage, the next phase in our government’s response to COVID-19 has begun. Bill 229, Ontario’s Action Plan: Protect, Support, Recover, is a $45 billion plan with three pillars. The plan includes $15.2 billion for increased health investments to protect people from this deadly virus. It also included $13.5 billion in total direct support for families, workers, and employers, in addition to $11.3 billion in cash flow support. We worked hard to remove barriers to our recovery through initiatives such as our Red Tape Reduction Ministry and by providing $4.8 billion to protect and create jobs.
Over the year, there have been many controversial issues, but there was little disagreement over the need to get our children back to school this September. Our Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, was tasked with this challenging job of addressing the needs and demands of the students, parents, staff, and other stakeholders. He worked with ministry and school board officials to develop a system of virtual and in-class education. The successful and safe return of our children, teachers and staff to school was our number one priority.
Our government committed an additional $1.3 billion to school boards to hire more teachers and support staff, provide remote and alternative learning, and supply PPE and sanitation equipment. The greatest challenge was the hiring of qualified teachers, as all available resources had been exhausted. After months of negotiations with the teachers’ unions to reach an agreement for a one-year suspension of regulations restricting the hiring of retired teachers, last month, an agreement to employ retired teachers for 95 days was reached. The situation was so dire that some school boards were forced to hire parents to supervise students in the classroom.
Canadians are known worldwide for their ability to respond to emergencies with determination and generosity, and this pandemic’s response serves to reinforce that reputation. There is apparent optimism, as the first vaccines start to arrive in the country and the promise it brings of our former way of life. To ensure an efficient and safe rollout, we have assembled a Vaccine Distribution Taskforce under General Rick Hillier (Rtd). Logistic and medical experts have developed a priority list to protect the most vulnerable and achieve the greatest success. It is a health undertaking unlike any ever conducted in this county, and we need everyone’s patience and cooperation.
This year’s pandemic changed everyone’s lives in this country, and I often was asked about the changes at Queen’s Park and my role in Toronto. There was the obvious difference of the summer session required to debate and push through legislation to address Ontarians’ needs. Our government debated and passed ten private members’ bills and twenty-six government bills, of which six had unanimous consent. The accelerated legislative agenda required many additional hours of committee time when we had to find places to set up our computers because attending in person did not allow for social distancing.
Life in Toronto was also quite different, with air and rail transportation and restaurants unavailable for a good portion of the time. The government and the opposition reached an agreement on some temporary changes that allowed the Legislature to continue safely. The pandemic also generated a considerable increase in the number of enquiries and requests for service that my constituency staff and I had to handle remotely. This new method of remote service presented challenges for the public as well as for ourselves. I want to thank you for your cooperation.
This Christmas holiday season will be different this year as we continue to follow health guidelines and take the precautions necessary to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. By planning ahead and using alternative ways to gather virtually, I am sure we will be able to share in the joy of wishing each other a very Merry Christmas and the very best in 2021. As always, remember to stay safe and please don’t drink and drive.
MPP Jim McDonell