Issues important to region omitted from priorities listed by province.
While Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell touted the Ontario government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic during Monday’s throne speech, Niagara’s three New Democrat opposition MPPs called the oration “incredibly tone-deaf,” a “lost opportunity” and “ridiculous.”
Describing it as a campaign-style throne speech in preparation for the June 2, 2022, provincial election, Niagara Centre MPP Jeff Burch said it was “short on details with a lot of talk about a lot of promises, but with nothing specific.”
“That’s what I found kind of shocking at this stage in the pandemic,” Burch said in an interview. “It seemed incredibly tone deaf for a government that has been in power for three years.”
He said the speech lacked plans to resolve Ontario’s nursing shortage — despite ongoing concerns “about Bill 124 and how the government has limited them (nurses) to one per cent increases, when there are not enough nurses working in our hospitals and long-term-care facilities.”
Niagara Falls MPP Wayne Gates said calling health-care workers “heroes and then refusing to support them is the definition of hypocrisy.”
St. Catharines MPP Jennie Stevens called the speech “a missed opportunity ... while Niagara fights the fourth wave.”
“I know personally that classrooms are being shut down, childcare centres are being forced to withdraw services to families, nurses and PSW (personal support) workers are feeling burnt out while the government still has legislation on the books that ensures they are not getting paid what they deserve,” Stevens said in a media release.
Gates said the throne speech also did not include “a single word about getting our new Niagara Falls hospital built.”
“If you live in this community, you have seen firsthand the urgent need for that hospital before the pandemic began. Now that we’re two years into a health crisis it’s ridiculous that our premier is still not getting shovels in the ground,” he said.
Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce director of policy and government relations Hugo Chesshire said the success of many businesses is tied to health care “in a way that few of us have seen before.”
“A stronger and more resilient health-care system means that public health can be preserved with fewer restrictions on businesses, and it is the desire of the business community to see as few restrictions placed on it as possible while acting to save lives,” he said in an email. “We agree with the sentiment expressed in the speech that everything possible must be done to blunt the impact of the fourth wave so that businesses can continue to operate.”
However, he said, GNCC noted there was little mention of supporting businesses, including many that will need help to get through the final months of the pandemic.
“The GNCC has asked for a third round of the Ontario small business grant, for instance, and for more investment in the tourism sector,” Chesshire said.
He said the province intends to rely on economic growth to stimulate the province’s economic recovery, rather than cuts and taxes. However, the labour shortage could hinder that growth and the throne speech did not address issues such as affordable childcare and public transit that could help more people return to work.
“As the government has committed to balance the budget through economic growth, we look forward to more details on managing debt and an end to deficit spending in the future,” Chesshire said.
Burch called it surprising the throne speech did not address issues the affordable housing crisis, “and especially in Niagara, it’s something that is turning into a real crisis.”
Local New Democrats echoed concerns that plans for $10 per day childcare services, recently announced by the federal government, were not addressed.
Gates and Stevens also both referred to $5.6 billion in unspent federal funding to help Ontario recover from the pandemic during the past year.
“We need a plan to protect local businesses, not big box stores, to urgently get more nurses, PSWs and childcare staff to Niagara and to ensure they’re paid properly,” Gates said. “We need a plan to get our hospital built. Those are urgent requirements that were sorely missing from today’s throne speech.”
Stevens said “the choice to do nothing new is the wrong one,” adding work still needs to be done to protect families and businesses.
“We need a round of grants to help St. Catharines’ businesses get back on their feet, we need class sizes smaller and a vaccine policy that keeps students safe, we need a plan to hire more nurses and PSWs, and a government that actually starts to treat houses as homes in Niagara,” she said.
Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff defended the Throne Speech in an email sent late Monday.
“The Speech from the Throne focused on recovery from COVID-19, and a steady hand going forward, building on the remarkable work done to ensure Ontario has some of the highest rates of vaccination in the country,” the Progressive Conservative said.
“We have made unprecedented investments to add thousands of new hospital beds and ensure that qualified nurses and doctors are by a patient’s side when they need care.”
He said the province is investing nearly $5 billion over four years to hire more than 27,000 long-term care staff, including nurses and PSWs.
“In doing so, Ontario will provide long-term care home residents with four hours of direct care per day,” Oosterhoff said.
“We will also create the conditions for long-term economic growth by building roads and highways, building and expanding transit to communities across the province, and build an economy that makes Ontario the best place in the world to do business, work and raise a family – no matter where you live in the province.”