Profits in a Time of Pandemic

Doug Ford

The Ford government’s corruption is the product of conflicts of interest that are almost too boring and commonplace to merit comment

✎  WAYNE K. SPEAR | May 7, 2021 • Current Events

Precisely when ontario’s long-term covid-19 commission issued its final report, the Premier restored Norm Sterling to a political stage the former Minister of Environment and Energy had vacated one decade ago. You’ll recall Mr. Sterling in his connection to the Walkerton Tragedy, where the combination of carelessness and a late-April-to-mid-May rainfall contaminated a township’s water supply and produced over two thousand illnesses and six deaths. The Walkerton Inquiry introduced themes of negligence and under-resourcing which also returned to the political stage this week, in the work of a COVID-19 Commission whose chief co-counsel, John Callaghan, was a participant in the Walkerton investigations. Welcome to Ontario health crises, where it’s déjà vu all over again.

Those who back in the day referred to the Mike Harris cabinet as Ministers Against — the Minister Against Education, the Minister Against Health, and so on — were not surprised to learn that the man chosen by Premier Ford to preside the Greenbelt Council was against the Greenbelt Act. Or, to put this in a more precise way, against the idea of a Greenbelt Act which designates lands as protected in cases where someone wishes them to be expeditiously undesignated as such. This business of the expeditious redesignation of lucrative lands brings us to controversies over the Premier’s recent and, in the words of David Crombie, “grossly expanded use” of Minister’s Zoning Orders, or MZOs, as well as to developments concerning development: chief among them the proposed 400-series highway running fifty-two kilometres northeast from the 401 at Halton to the 400 at Vaughan. The NDP Finance Critic, Catherine Fife, has accused the Premier of operating under cover of Covid for the benefit of party donors, a charge which arrives as the evidence mounts of the government’s cosiness with the real estate, construction, and property management industries.

The leap from long-term care to MZO may seem as long as the GTA West corridor, yet both have a connection to Vaughan. The RCMP confirmed an investigation this week of a pro-Ford astroturf and propaganda outfit calling itself Vaughan Working Families, registered in 2018 by Vaughan Health Campus of Care, whose Chair Michael De Gasperis is a director of TACC Developments, a CEO of Arista Homes, a PC donor and fundraiser, and a warm acquaintance of Stephen Lecce. Another LTC outfit connected to Vaughan Working Families, UniversalCare Canada Inc., has brought a thirty-five-million-dollar lawsuit upon itself as a result of Covid-19 deaths at the Villa Colombo Vaughan Di Poce Centre, named after the real estate developer John Di Poce. (It used to be harder to put your name on these buildings. The recent proliferation of hospital wings and health and patient care centres named after developers is another Ford gift to donors.) In fact, of the developers close to the government, Di Poce owns the most acres along the proposed 413.

Throughout the pandemic the Ford who ran for Premier as a plain-folks populist ignored the needs of frontline and essential workers, denying them paid sick leave and front-of-queue vaccinations and sensible policies with their interests uppermind. His cuts early in the administration made Ontario more vulnerable to crisis just as the Harris cuts had done decades earlier. The rules he put in place were too often murky and at odds with science. To all appearances, the Premier improvised as he went, showing no evidence of learning along the way. In the absence of political leadership, ordinary citizens turned to arrangements like Vaccine Hunters Canada to obtain their relief. Ford didn’t create the underlying conditions but he was slow to act when, as the Commission final report puts it, “the pandemic shone a spotlight on a reality that existed long before COVID-19.”

According to the findings, the province’s long-term care homes had been neglected and underfunded for decades by successive governments, suffered severe staffing shortages and lack of training, were easy targets for the uncontrolled LTC outbreaks that were “among the worst in the world,” and received little notice until “a parade of sickness and death” made it impossible to ignore the long-standing problems. In a May 3 QP Briefing interview, John Callaghan quoted from the notes of a Canadian Armed Forces member who witnessed the deaths of twenty-six LTC residents from lack of “water and a wipe down.” In the meanwhile LTC operators like Extendicare (now involved in a $200-million class-action lawsuit) issue dividends. Chartwell has praised its pandemic performance and awarded its executives bonuses that are larger than those of the year before, on top of salaries exceeding one million dollars. A spokesperson for the man who made all of this profiteering possible, by engineering the deregulation of Ontario’s long-term care industry, said that “Mr. Harris’ drive and passion to provide great services and quality care to our aging population was one of the reasons he was asked to join Chartwell as chair in 2003.” Harris is estimated to have profited from his eighteen-year association with Chartwell to an amount of $3.5 million. One man’s tragedy is another man’s comedy.

Now some have awoken to the fact that the road to hell is apparently paved with drive and passion. Canada’s Shareholder Association for Research and Education urges that Mr. Harris (who in any case is expected to step down next year) should not continue as Chair of Chartwell Retirement Residences, citing concerns about the safety of customers and employees, as well as “significant legal, regulatory, financial and reputational risks.” Now that sounds like the Mike Harris I remember. There have been calls for the resignation of Premier Ford as well, most notably by David Moscrop in the pages of the Washington Post.

Whatever the outcomes, there are lessons to be learned, the chief among them that Ontario does not learn lessons. So long as negligence and nature are provisioned enclaves in which to collude unimpeded — and in this province, they are provisioned as a matter of custom — we will have more Walkertons and more LTC disasters. The Ford government is not the first nor the last corrupt government to rule this province. Its apparent incompetence is the product of conflicts of interest that are almost too boring and commonplace to merit comment. Many have suffered this past year, but we have not been in this together — not those collecting the dividends and bonuses, nor those placing private profit above public interest, nor those who claim responsibility without consequences, nor those who use their years in political office to serve their masters and secure their future pelf. ⌾