Many Canadians are watching political developments in Ontario as education support workers (members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees [CUPE]) are set to recommence negotiations with the province following strike action. These events have left some wondering what the government's legislative priorities will be for the remainder of the fall session, as the government seeks to advance its policy objectives amid highly charged political tensions.
The following is a summary of legislative priorities set out by the Government of Ontario at the beginning of the fall session in August 2022, which followed the re-election of a Progressive Conservative government with a commanding majority. This summary offers some indication of what the provincial government may prioritize before the Legislative Assembly rises at the end of the fall sitting on December 8, 2022.
Speech from the Throne
The Speech from the Throne, delivered by Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell on August 9, outlined the broad objectives of the re-elected Progressive Conservative government. The agenda and priorities set out in the speech largely mirrored the 2022 Ontario Budget, which was re-tabled by Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy following the Speech from the Throne.
At the outset of this sitting, the government boasted the Plan to Catch Up, which strives to get students back in classrooms with full-time in-class experiences. The province has continued to support parents seeking tutoring services for their children, an investment that was outlined in the Speech from the Throne. In October, Education Minister Lecce announced that parents can apply for payments up to $200 per school-aged child under the plan. Parents with school-aged children with special education needs, up to the age of 21, can apply for $250. These supports are intended to go towards tutoring, supplies, or equipment.
Parents and advocates have applied pressure on the government to fulfil promises about the rollout of the Ontario Autism Program. The government committed to enrolling 8,000 autistic children into core clinical services by the end of the fall.
The high-profile strike by CUPE workers has strained the government's relationships with educators, education workers, and labour. Premier Doug Ford announced this on Monday that the government is willing to revoke tabled legislation in response to the strike, and rescind the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the notwithstanding clause), provided that CUPE members cease strike action and return to negotiations. In response, CUPE announced its intention to end strike action, but expects negotiations to be conducted in good faith. It remains to be seen whether the government can salvage key relationships with stakeholders after having used the notwithstanding clause in a pre-emptive manner to ban the right to strike, which is constitutionally protected under the freedom of association of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The Speech from the Throne acknowledged existing strain on Ontario's health-care system, including workforce exhaustion and resourcing challenges. The government committed to consultation and investment to respond to urgent, actionable needs.
The government also intends to implement measures to keep the health-care system operational in the event of a winter surge. The government's plan targets five principal objectives:
- Preserve hospital capacity;
- Provide care in the appropriate setting within the health-care system;
- Reduce surgical waitlists;
- Ease pressure on emergency departments; and
- Expand the workforce.
Key measures include increasing the number of long-term care beds, transitioning patients to long-term care to alleviate hospital strain, and increasing physician coverage in northern and rural settings.
Measures to address staffing challenges include hiring more internationally educated health-care workers, working with the College of Nurses of Ontario to reduce nursing fees, improving recruitment and retention, and stabilizing agency fees.
In early September, Health Minister Sylvia Jones directed the College of Nurses of Ontario to proceed with amendments to its registration process to make it easier for international nurses to work in the health-care system. Amendments would also make it easier for nurses who are not currently working to enter the system.
The provincial government, in the company of all the other provincial governments, continues to urge the federal government to increase its share of provincial-territorial healthcare spending from 22 per cent to 35 per cent through the Canada Health Transfer.
Job growth and employment
The provincial government has targeted the automotive sector as a priority area for job growth. The Speech from the Throne noted in particular that Ontario will strive to be a North American leader in electric vehicle production.
The Progressive Conservatives also intend to grow the clean steel industry in the province.
The Speech from the Throne identified development of the Ring of Fire, a massive mineral development opportunity in northern Ontario, as a key priority. Surveys and studies suggest that the Ring of Fire could be a potential source of critical minerals, including chromite, cobalt, nickel, copper, and platinum. Among other uses, these minerals are essential for production of low- and zero-emission vehicles. Key measures to facilitate development include securing bilateral agreements with First Nations, constructing year-round road access with associated infrastructure, and supporting exploration activity.
The government will seek to advance growth objectives through ongoing investments in skilled trades, committing to invest $1 billion in its skilled trade strategy. An additional $90-million investment in the Skills Development Fund (SDF) was announced in September.
The Government of Ontario also called on the federal government to increase the number of skilled trade workers that are allowed to immigrate to Ontario.
The provincial government launched consultations on expanding health and benefits coverage to employees currently without such coverage. The plan focuses particularly on "gig economy" workers.
Ontario's infrastructure strategy is heavily focused on transit, road, and highway development. This includes over $86 billion over 10 years in infrastructure projects. Notable projects include construction on Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass, along with other projects across the province such as Highway 101 and Highway 3.
Progress may be threatened or delayed on certain projects. Highway 413 construction is particularly at risk, as the federal Impact Assessment Agency has heard complaints from two First Nations that provincial efforts at consultation have been inadequate.
The government is also reiterating its plan to support expanded GO train service, the Ontario Line subway project, and reintroduction the Northlander train service.
Cost of living
The government stressed it remains focused primarily on the housing crisis.
The government introduced the controversial More Homes Built Faster Act on October 25. Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steven Clark has called the bill bold and transformational. Among other measures, the bill would allow for three units to be constructed on each residential lot. The legislation further allows the government to override municipal rules preventing such development. The bill also threatens stipulations around "inclusionary zones" in municipalities, and limits rules regarding affordable housing units.
The government's housing measures additionally include increasing the non-resident homebuyers' tax from 20 to 25 per cent.
Municipalities are pushing back against a provincial plan that would freeze or waive development charges.
The government kept its commitment to introduce legislation empowering mayors in Ottawa and Toronto. The Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act received Royal Assent on September 8. The objective of the act is to enable Ontario's largest cities to increase their respective housing supplies.
The Act gives the mayors of Ottawa and Toronto responsibility to craft annual budgets and the power to hire and fire municipal department heads. The bill would also allow the mayors to override bylaws passed by council if they felt doing so "would further a provincial priority."
Recently elected Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe responded that the new powers are unnecessary to solve the housing supply issue, as he believes that the housing crisis should be resolved through consensus-building and full engagement with council.
Toronto Mayor John Tory has expressed his willingness and intention to use strong mayor powers as needed. Mayor Tory plans to create a new housing division using the strong mayor powers provided to him under the act.
The government has proposed changes to the New Home Construction Licensing Act that would double fines for homebuilders or sellers found to have unfairly cancelled a construction project or purchase agreement.
The Ford Government of Ontario has focused on demonstrating it is advancing its agenda as set out in the Speech from the Throne.
Observers will be watching closely on several fronts, in particular for a resolution to Ontario's ongoing labour disputes. The political impact of these events may force the government to reprioritize its legislative objectives in the weeks before the Legislative Assembly is scheduled to rise in December. No doubt, much will depend as well on the levers to further strengthen Ontario's economy in a hopefully soon post-pandemic period.