2020 is ending, but the impact of this year will certainly resonate for the years, if not decades. Since the provincial Emergency Measures were enacted in early March, COVID-19 has affected us all, and has taken away the lives of thousands of Ontarians.
Back in March, we were certainly facing a situation that was unlike any other and facing the incertitude of a new pandemic that seemed to get more difficult every day. Fast-forward to December, it seems that the second wave like a sucker punch. Let’s face it, if 2020 were to get a note, it’d be a big F. And while the rollout of the vaccine seems like the light at the end of the tunnel, COVID-19 cases continue to increase to numbers that may shut down our hospitals and the health system as a whole.
When it comes to Mushkegowuk-James Bay, we were certainly not immune to the pandemic. Compared to other regions, the case count remained relatively low and it was certainly in large part because of the work undertaken by Porcupine Health Unit and Weeneebayko Area Health Authority. Both PHU and WAHA, in collaboration with Band Councils and municipalities, have exemplified what an all-hands-on-deck and collaborative public health approach is about. They have done incredible work by encouraging people to follow evidence-based health advice and to test, contact trace and isolate whenever it was required. For that reason, I cannot but commend their leadership and their teams.
While a fair proportion of the area’s economy remained afloat, especially the forestry and construction sectors, small businesses and sectors like tourism faced multiple challenges. The closure of the borders affected the thriving camps and many had difficulty applying for federal and provincial relief programs. Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) - especially in retail, hospitality, and services - were seriously hit by the shutdown, but many have also been able to find creative ways to keep up with the challenge.
During the first wave, I had the opportunity to meet with multiple business owners and to host an online forum, which allowed me to gather information that I submitted to the Minister of Finance on the impact of COVID-19 in Mushkegowuk-James Bay. What a young operator from the Hearst area told me neatly summarizes the sentiment: “Northerners know what’s best for the North.” The call was for a regional approach, with more aggressive, direct and retroactive relief programs and financial aid, and concrete plan for reliable broadband in Northern Ontario.
I was also able host a virtual town hall on long-term care and to co-host two town halls on education. These online public forums were incredible rich and resourceful for me: This allowed me to return to the Legislature to press for issues that were directly by constituents.
As the Legislature continued to seat in during the end-tail of the first wave and during the Fall, I was able to raise your voices at Queen’s Park on several issues, including the lack of childcare services for frontline workers, the cogen facility in Constance Lake, access to reliable broadband for students and families, access to Crown land, Fort Albany’s infrastructure, DriveTest centres, mental health services, funding for Northern municipalities, the shortage of hospital beds, protecting the traditional territories of Attawapiskat, access to French language services, access to long-term care, and many more.
Correspondence and virtual meetings with Ministers to represent your concerns multiplied. One issue that came to the forefront was the skyrocketing premiums and arbitrary rules that truck owner-operators and drivers have to face. Truckers have gone above and beyond to sustain the province’s supply chain and for that reason they were labelled heroes – and rightly so. The Minister of Finance agreed that this was an issue but did not provide a quick and salutary solution. For that reason, I will be introducing legislation in early 2021 to correct this situation.
Locally, I am saddened to have been unable to visit the manifold areas of Mushkegowuk-James Bay. Meeting face to face with you all is what gives me the energy to keep on pushing for what you all need and truly deserve.
Our offices were at first available by phone only and then by appointment while facing an all-time high caseload. I am immensely proud and grateful of the work undertook by my constituency staff and their ability move forward in an arguably stressful situation.
To speak about the Ford government and its response to the pandemic is two speak of almost two faces: during the early months, we had a government that was deeply touched by the situation and reached to the Opposition members and listened to our voices. But since the early weeks of the summer, I felt as though the old Doug Ford had made it back in full force. We rarely saw the Premier in the Legislature and he would refuse to take any questions except for those coming from his side of the aisle.
The government’s response to the pandemic became slower and reactive along the way. And s the pandemic painfully revealed the horrors of long-term care and thousands died in care in Ontario, the Ford government defended the for-profit operators that failed to provide care and dignity. To add insult to injury, the Ford government passed legislation that shields for-profit corporations and the province from liability, making it difficult for families to seek justice for the horrors their loved ones faced in long-term care.
Instead, the NDP has put out three bills to improve seniors' care and a long-term care platform to improve care and to remove profit from the system.
Every year brings its own unique set of victories and defeats, struggles and joys. But one thing that this year has taught me is that the word “end” is actually an acronym that stands for “effort never dies.” I am proud and grateful to be able to represent your voice in Ontario’s Legislature.
I wish you all a wonderful holiday season, and a happy, healthy and prosperous new year.