From the healthcare crisis to that of childcare, there’s no doubt a constellation of critical issues is plaguing Ontarians. On a recent whirlwind tour of the region, newly appointed Ontario New Democratic Party Leader, Marit Stiles, spoke with the Gazette about these issues, their origins, and what can be done to improve the lives of people in this province.
Stiles assumed the position of Ontario NDP Leader, and with it, the position of Official Opposition Leader on February 4, 2023. Asked what she might bring to the table, Stiles spoke of the struggles gripping everyday Ontarians and pointed to the need for a bold vision to help people and remedy some of the crises the public is facing.
Stiles also emphasized the importance of the opposition for ensuring the government-in this case Doug Ford’s Provincial Government-is held accountable for their decisions.
“One of my main roles is to hold the government to account. That is a really important role and an important part of democracy,” she said. “Also, my role is to come forward with proposals and a bold vision for what Ontario could look like. I think, for a lot of people in this province, if you were to look at where you were at five years ago versus today, things are not getting better. People are struggling more than they ever have been…I’m looking at ways we could put forward a progressive vision for Ontario that will reach more people than we reach today.”
It has been widely reported that, as of the last quarter of 2022, the provincial government spent $859 million less than expected. With a healthcare spending surplus puzzling many bewildered Ontarians who are, at the same time, in the throngs of a healthcare crisis, Stiles spoke to the NDP stance on this and the root cause of this crisis.
“The healthcare crisis is largely a staffing crisis. For the most part, it’s based on the fact we are losing nurses and other healthcare workers because they are underpaid, disrespected, and overworked,” espoused Stiles.
When speaking of the surplus, she described the Ontario Government’s decision not to spend this money on the current crisis as “mindboggling”.
“They’re squirreling it away at a time when the need is greater than it’s ever been before,” Stiles added. “This government could go a long way in just addressing the crisis with the dollars they already have. So, why aren’t they spending the money?”
It would be impossible to speak of the current healthcare crisis without mentioning the looming threat of privatization. Stiles did not mince words when speaking of the gravity of this concern.
“I think, what we have is a government intent on creating a crisis. We have a government that’s proposing to carve off a lot of healthcare into for-profit clinics and that means putting dollars that would have gone directly into patient care into investor pockets,” stated Stiles. “We have a big problem with that. I think it will lead to worse care for many Ontarians and a two-tier healthcare system.”
Since the days of Tommy Douglas, who introduced the first publicly funded medical insurance in this country back in 1961, Canadian’s have been proud of their healthcare system. Stiles decried the current provincial government’s move to exploit the healthcare crisis and pave the way for a two-tier healthcare system.
“I think, for a lot of people in Ontario and across Canada, we’ve been proud of our healthcare system. There’s always been issues, but we’ve been proud that people didn’t lose their livelihoods just to pay for healthcare,” said Stiles. “The idea that the government would exploit this crisis to create a system wherein…it’s going to cost more of the system.”
Stiles noted the opening of private clinics will draw healthcare workers out of hospitals, partially because they’ll be paid more and may have more sustainable work hours.
“That’s going to leave the people back at the hospital with a lower level of care,” she commented. “It’s scary for that reason, as well as it’s opening the door to allow people to jump the que if they have the money to do so. We’re already seeing that happening.”
Arguing once more for a bold vision to remedy the current healthcare crisis, Stiles spoke of the need to improve worker’s wages. She also noted that spending the surplus healthcare dollars would be a good place to start.
“We need to do something significant right now. Spending the dollars that are there is a start but we need to be acting in an aggressive way to recruit and support healthcare workers,” she said. “We could start by paying nurses a decent wage. The government needs to stop working to suppress workers’ wages in court. They just lost yet another appeal and they’re going back to court again to keep Bill 124 in place to freeze nurses wages.”
Stiles added there is need to innovate, but stressed this can be done without privatization.
“There’s a lot of innovation we could be doing within the public healthcare system in terms of how we share data, records, and information. We could also be innovating in terms of looking at other ways to provide primary care, such as nurse practitioner led clinics,” suggested Stiles.
Stiles suggested innovation and workers’ rights are also key when it comes to reconciling the provincial government’s commitment to expand capacity-from hospitals to long term care homes-with the diminishing workforce.
“Just like when we talk about nursing, we also have to talk about the wages of those workers in long term care and home care. I think it’s time we rethought how we provide that care in our communities,” commented Stiles. “We really haven’t seen the investment we need in terms of caring for people in their own homes. Let’s shift more of those resources to ensure people can stay in their homes longer. Let’s show some respect to those workers who do such important work in long term care and home care by paying them a decent wage and ensuring they have better benefits.”
While Stiles admits more long-term care home beds are needed, she argues the need to invest in home care is also apparent, given the proven benefits so long as necessary supports are provided.
“The science is there. That’s how people thrive, as long as they get the supports they need,” said Stiles.
Another far-reaching problem that has affected many Prince Edward County families is that of childcare. While the federal $10/day childcare incentive has helped many, it falls short for those who can’t access care due to a childcare worker shortage.
According to a recent CBC News article, some childcare centres are so short of workers they doubt the incentive program will be able to reach all the children who need a spot. Some centres are running at half capacity while others have shut down completely.
Locally, as of late last year, the wait list for the Hub-the only licensed childcare centre in the County-was well over 100 people long.
“Childcare workers really are among the most important people we have in our communities. They do the most important work caring for our little ones and yet their work is consistently undervalued,” stated Stiles. “The NDP has been fighting for this $10/day national childcare program for decades now. We’re really excited it’s started to unroll in communities but we flagged this as being a barrier to follow through many years ago.”
The solution, argues Stiles, is not only increasing graduation rates for childcare workers, but also attracting those who have left the sector for better pay and benefits.
“The pay is so low, and for many, there aren’t benefits. It’s not worth staying if they can’t care for their own families on that wage,” decried Stiles.
While Ontario should have learned from Quebec when that province made the same mistake after implementing a childcare incentive program, Stiles is adamant there is still hope.
“We should have learned from that experience but it’s not too late. We need to start trying to attract childcare workers back into childcare centres,” said Stiles.