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'A lot of work that had to be done in a hurry:' Christine Elliott on navigating a province during a pandemic
In this edition: the former Ford cabmin on leaving politics, a Poilievre landslide and an "inflation busting" team, remembering the Queen, order paper rundown
It's Monday. Welcome to POLICORNER. The world said goodbye to Queen Elizabeth II as world leaders gathered for her state funeral in London. A national commemorative ceremony happened in Ottawa. Photo. Photo. Another photo.
In this 10 minute read: she led Ontario’s response to a pandemic. We speak to Christine Elliott on a “very stressful and difficult time” and leaving provincial politics. Pierre Poilievre is the new Conservative captain. Ontario's direction to schools on remembering the Queen. Plus, what to expect during the first day of the fall sitting.
“It was a very stressful and difficult time.”
That is how Christine Elliott describes the past two years at the helm of Ontario’s response to a global pandemic. The former Minister of Health — now retired from provincial politics and back in the legal sector — sat down with newsBeyond and recalled the work that “had to be done very quickly” as the virus percolated the province.
“I don’t think anyone expected that it would last as long as it has,” Elliott explains. “I think — at the beginning — many people thought that it would be more like the SARS epidemic that happened a number of years ago in Ontario.”
“After the first few weeks, we all realized that this was something far bigger than SARS and that it was going to take a concerted effort by many people in the province in order to deal with it,” she recalls. It would be Elliott’s job to oversee the provincial response to a rapidly spreading virus and the rollout of a mass vaccination campaign.
The government made the decision to shut down schools for two weeks following the March Break as a “precaution” — inevitably extending that shutdown until the end of the academic school year. Unessential businesses were ordered to close and a state of emergency was declared days later.
Everything concerning this unknown virus was keeping the former Health Minister up at night. “It was when we realized that it was starting to accelerate in transmission. We also realized that we didn’t necessarily have all the systems in place to immediately be able to respond to COVID,” she recalls.
“One example would be the Personal Protective Equipment that we had in a warehouse. We discovered — as we searched for equipment early on — that a lot of this equipment had expired and wasn’t suitable for use against a pandemic in any event. We immediately started to order PPE as from wherever we could get it. Of course, we were in a search with almost every other country in the world so that became very difficult to do.”
Elliott says the government also worked to increase laboratory capacity for testing. “It was a lot of work that had to be done in a hurry to be ready to handle the increasing numbers of people contracting the virus,” she explains.
The impact of the pandemic on everyone — including businesses — was challenging for Elliott. “We had to virtually close the province down several times, meaning many businesses were in jeopardy” she recalls.
“That weighed very heavily on me knowing how economically difficult that was for so many people. It was something that we had to do in order to protect the health of the population. It’s not something that any of us took for granted.”
Despite how these decisions “weighed very heavily” on Elliott, she says she never considered calling it quits.
“I knew that we had to keep moving forward and we needed to keep our team together,” she recalls. “We had a team that was working together and I’m very proud of the work that they did. I didn’t want to step away from that. I knew I had my own responsibilities as well.”
Elliott — whose home was the target of pandemic protests — maintains that she was not worried about the political impact of the government’s decisions. On occasion, Elliott acknowledges, there were some disagreements amongst medical advisors. “It wasn’t always the universally held view that they recommended but we did follow the medical advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health,” she says.
“That was important. I’m not a doctor. I needed to listen to what the epidemiologists had to say and to act on that. That’s what we followed from the beginning. I think to have done otherwise would have been folly.”
Is there anything Elliott would have done differently? “I will be the first one to say that we didn’t do everything perfectly,” she admits. Elliott maintains that there “could have been some things that maybe we would have liked to have acted faster,” citing government mechanisms and delays in the approval process.
“I would say that because we had an excellent team, we were able to quickly identify what the concern was, discuss the best resolution and then implement it. That we did really well. If it didn’t happen that way, there would have been further delays and perhaps more people would have lost their lives.”
It was in late April last year that things took a rocky turn for the government. Amid rising infections and hospitalizations during a third wave, Premier Doug Ford announced the closure of playgrounds and provided police with the authority of questioning those not at home. The decision was criticized and quickly reversed.
“It was realized very early on that this was not something that people wanted or was absolutely necessary for people’s protection,” Elliott recalls. “That’s when a change was made and that course was reversed.”
Elliott — who was the face of the almost daily pandemic briefings — says it was “really important to have clear communication with people.” “That was something that we really strove to do on a daily basis.”
However, she is proud of “the way that all of our teams were able to work together seamlessly and with everyone having the health and safety of the people of Ontario as their first priority.” “I worked with an absolutely tremendous team of people and I’m very proud of all of the work that they did.”
A provincial election was looming. Elliott had to make a big decision.
Will she run for the Tories after a hectic two years or step away from provincial politics — an arena she played in for over a dozen years. “I did give it a lot of thought and spoke with my family about it,” Elliott says.
She decided not to seek another term in office. “The pandemic was in a situation that was — I would say — under control at the time and the majority of Ontarians were vaccinated, so it was at that time that I decided, along with my family, that it was time for me to leave politics,” she explains.
In a statement after she made it official, Ford called her “a close personal friend” and said she was “by my side since the start of the pandemic.”
Elliott, who kept a low profile since the provincial election, took time off over the summer to reflect on her next steps. Watching from the sidelines, the former Tory says she was “very happy” that the Tories won “with an even stronger majority.”
The reason for their success? “I think it was that appeal to the future and to rebuilding that was very appealing to people,” she explains.
When asked if she had advice for Health Minister Sylvia Jones and the government, Elliott explains “I don’t think there’s any advice that I could give them that they don’t already know.” “I worked very closely with Minister Jones on the vaccination effort. She was the Solicitor General who was responsible for finding the locations and the people to administer the vaccines. I would say she knows very well what needs to be done.”
Elliott has spoken with Jones since her appointment.
When asked to describe the past two years in one word, Elliott pauses. “Committed,” she says. “I was committed to do whatever we needed to do to protect the people of Ontario and to see it through.”
Elliott, no stranger to the legal sector, now joins Fasken — an international business law group — in Toronto where she will serve as Counsel. She will be working with health law practitioners and life science and technology groups “to offer my perspectives on new opportunities and ways to deal with some of the issues and challenges that some of their clients are facing.”
A return to politics? She quickly says no. “I can say that I am finished with elected politics,” a definitive Elliott declares. “I am absolutely sure about that.”
There's a new Tory leader in town. Pierre Poilievre secured the leadership of the Conservative Party in a decisive win — toppling four candidates with almost seventy per cent of available points. It was an expected win by many Conservative watchers. Speaking to raucous supporters at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa, Poilievre said his win is “not my victory” but “yours.”
ON THE ORDER PAPER — MPs will return to the House of Commons tomorrow for the start of the fall sitting. Here's what's expected to go down:
10 AM — Two government bills are lined up, including one on “cost of living relief measures related to dental care and rental housing.” Second reading debate will resume on the Canada Disability Benefit Act.
2 PM — Question Period. This will be newly minted Tory leader Pierre Poilievre's first Question Period as Opposition leader. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in New York for the UN General Assembly.
5:30 PM — A committee report will be presented on MP Kyle Seeback (Dufferin—Caledon)'s Reuniting Families Act. Third reading is expected to be motioned.
6:30 PM — Adjournment proceeding
The House is expected to adjourn at 7 PM.
The Ford government issued a direction to schools on ensuring that activities on Monday “include learning about the many contributions the Queen made” and the accession of King Charles II. In a memo from Deputy Education Minister Nancy Naylor, the government said “Recognitions and observances of this nature should be consistent with board policies” and “conducted in an age-appropriate manner that recognizes the developmental stages of students.”
Trillium Health Partners say they “fully support the changes” being made by the province that permits the transfer of hospital patients to long-term care homes as a “much needed step” in ensuring that people are “able to get the right care.” The legislation — which was passed — would send patients as far as 150km away from their home in Northern Ontario or 70km in Sothern Ontario with a $400 fine per day if patients refuse. More on Bill 7.
Ontario is expected to unveil a long COVID strategy “in the near future,” according to Ontario's top doctor Kieran Moore. Moore told the Canadian Press that hospitals are submitting proposals and the province is “working to provide guidance to primary care professionals on how to care for patients with long COVID symptoms.”
ON THE MOVE
Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has named his new leadership team. Here are the new roles:
Melissa Lantsman — Deputy Leader
Tim Uppal — Deputy Leader
Andrew Scheer — House Leader
Luc Berthold — Deputy House Leader
Kerry-Lynne Findlay — Whip
Chris Warkentin — Deputy Whip and Question Period Coordinator
Pierre Paul-Hus — Quebec Lieutenant
Eric Duncan — Caucus-Party Liaison
Jake Stewart — Caucus Committee Coordinator
Are you a political insider on the move? We want to feature you in the next newsletter. Drop us a line — we're all ears.
WHAT WE’RE READING
CNN: “Biden and world leaders attend state funeral for Queen Elizabeth II” by Maegan Vazquez
CBC NEWS: “Green MPs threatened to leave party if leadership race paused, email to party council says” by David Thurton
TORONTO STAR: “Trudeau government considering end to COVID-19 vaccination mandate at border and random testing: sources” by Althia Raj
THE CANADIAN PRESS: “Russia summons Canadian ambassador, says embassy in Ottawa was attacked” by Dylan Robertson
TVO: “The Liberals need a new leader. Here’s where they might find one” by Steve Paikin
Last edition’s answer: Donna Cansfield was the MPP who was supported by former Premier Dalton McGuinty in her bid for the Speakership.
THIS WEEK’S QUESTION: Which Crown corporation is responsible for the production of Canadian coins? Drop us a line with your answer.
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