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The Canary In The Coal Mine

I recently watched an interview with long time New York Times columnist and author, Thomas Friedman. He was speaking about Donald Trump, and although he thinks Trump is a threat to American democracy and overall global peace, Friedman did share a valuable insight: “just because Trump believes it – doesn’t mean it’s not true.” As the ballots were counted in the Ontario PC’s leadership race, many sat slacked-jawed as Doug Ford was elected leader of the party. What is more worrying is the fact that according to recent polls – he may actually win the Premier’s office. With Ontario’s June 7 election quickly approaching, it is becoming clear that the province is not immune to the tide of populist politics that is taking root the world-over.

You would think that voters across Ontario would have taken note of the dumpster fire that was the Mayoralty of Rob Ford. Promising an end to the ‘gravy train’, Canada’s largest city lurched from crisis to crisis under the leadership (I use that word loosely) of the Commander-in-Chief of Ford Nation. To be fair, Doug and Rob are not the same person. That said, the older Ford remains culpable as he stood by his brother’s side, in full-throated support, as allegations of drug use and political antics consumed city politics.

So, how do we navigate the issues that face us in this election? It is here that I would invoke the wisdom of Thomas Friedman, only adding a slight twist: just because Doug Ford believes it, doesn’t mean it’s not true. Perhaps populist leaders can be of some use to the democratic process – they can act as the canary in the coal mine. Just like those foreshadowing little birds, they possess little brains and no strategic policy options, but they do chirp a lot when something’s not right.

Ford has tapped into some kind of truth that there is indeed something rotten in the state (or province) of Ontario. In a world of fake news, it has become increasingly difficult for citizens to wade through the rhetoric and understand what exactly it is our politicians are saying – and voters are upset. Both Wynne and Horwath would be wise not to make the same mistake as Hilary Clinton and under-estimate the, ‘angry vote’. Many thought Trump would defeat himself with his pussy-grabbing wall-building rhetoric. Instead, he managed to tap into a deep social anxiety among many Americans. We should expect no different from Ford. Instead, we need to focus on policy – so let’s.

To begin with, Ford has announced that he will eliminate provincial income tax for minimum wage earners, but will maintain that minimum wage at $14/hour. Both the Liberals and NDP have committed to a $15/hour minimum wage. So what would bring the most benefit to Ontarian’s?

Ford, like Trump, has identified an important truth in Ontario. According to Statistics Canada, the province has suffered the lowest income growth rate in the country – a mere 3.8% compared to the national average of 10.8%. So when the PC’s announced eliminating provincial income tax on low wage earners, saving them $800/year, it’s understandable why so many would swoon. Like the good little populist he is, Ford has hit on a truth and attacked that old evil nemesis – tax. But let’s do the math.

Despite how nice no provincial income tax sounds – Ford is still holding to a $14/hour minimum wage. This means that a person working 40 hours/week would earn a net yearly income of $29,120. It also places the bulk of the risk on the public purse, reducing tax revenue that could otherwise be used to bolster public services. Under the NDP, or Liberals, Ontarian’s working minimum wage jobs would see their hourly rate increase to $15/hour, meaning an individual working a 40 hour week would see a net yearly income of $32,100. So, if you’re a minimum wage worker, what would you rather have? Ford’s $800/year, or the NDP/Liberal’s $2,980/year? Not so populist now, are ya?

Healthcare is another key issue for voters in this province. If it’s not, it should be. Our healthcare system faces numerous challenges. Among them is the reality of an aging population, and an ongoing struggle to deal with mental health and addiction. Like income tax and wages, the devil will be in the details.

Ontario is facing down a crisis when it comes to a growing population of seniors in this province. Among the greatest challenges will be dealing with the rise in cases of those living with dementia. Right now, our healthcare infrastructure is geared toward acute care – not long-term chronic care. Despite this, the Liberals have failed in 15 years to provide legislation that would address the issue. Yes, the Wynne Liberals have promised more long-term care accommodation in the province’s hospitals, but what’s left unsaid is the fact that such measures will only amount to a drop in the proverbial bucket.

There is a solution, but it is one that any government would be loath to take –- put pressure on the private seniors living sector to accommodate more seniors with dementia. A difficult step as powerful industry associations such as the Ontario Retirement Communities Association (ORCA) and the Ontario Long-Term Care Association (OLTCA) maintain an ardent stand against further government regulation. In addition to this, the province should dedicate more resources to training Personal Support Workers (PSWs) to recognize the signs of dementia, and how to care for those living with it.
Turning to the issue of mental health and addiction, the recent opioid crisis has left many stunned at just how unprepared and under-resourced our healthcare system is. More than that, fentanyl overdoses have illustrated that substance abuse is more far-reaching than the stigma of drug use would have us believe. Those dying are not just the stereotypical addict, but hail from the ranks of the middle class. Suburban teenagers, professionals, friends and family – a stratum of individuals who otherwise we would not be so quick to attribute the label, ‘wretch’.

Despite this, our healthcare system is not equipped to deal with such cases. Toronto’s Centre for Mental Health and Addiction (CAMH) is a progressive hospital that utilizes the latest in addiction medicine to treat clients, yet it operates on a 9-5/Monday to Friday schedule. Unfortunately, addiction does not pay much heed to regular office hours. Furthermore, private drug rehab facilities face no licensing or standards requirements, often leaving desperate individuals and families to fend for themselves in a world of pseudo-scientific 12-Step centres charging thousands of dollars, and whose treatment models are backed by zero medical evidence. What’s more, many of these centres receive public funds to operate.

To-date, I have not seen any clear strategy, in any party platform, to address these issues. The NDP are the only party to come close. The NDP’s universal pharmacare would not only benefit our seniors community, but would also go far in helping those with addiction and mental health issues access important medications such as Naltrexone (an anti-craving medication) and anti-depressants. The Liberal option provides a half-measure. The Liberal’s OHIP+Pharmacare would help individuals under 24 access medications, a demographic that is perhaps the least likely to need such help and therefore the least expensive to fund. At least the Liberal’s have some policies in place. Sadly, the man leading the polls, Doug Ford, has no strategy at all. So far, Ford has only supplied vague promises for more resources and catchy phrases like, ‘eliminating hallway healthcare’. Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, catchy phrases and no details are the hallmarks of populist politics.

Unfortunately, Ontarian’s will need more from their next government. Ford is right in pointing out income growth and an under-resourced healthcare system as important issues for the province. Remember, just because Doug Ford believes it, doesn’t mean it’s not true. However, it would be to our peril to believe that Ford, and the supposedly ‘Progressive’ Conservative party, are in any position to actually address these important issues. We can’t afford to cast a ballot and hope that the adults in the PC’s such as Christine Elliott or Caroline Mulroney will prevail in policy. Instead, I would urge readers to use Ford much as miners used that canary – take note of the problems Ford points out, then look to the platforms of the NDP and Liberals to learn who would best address those problems.

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