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Critics blast Ford government’s continued defence of Bill 124 after new revelations

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Sylvia Jones attend a photo opportunity with healthcare workers at before a news conference at the Michener Institute of Education in Toronto, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

The Ford government is facing furious criticism after internal documents, obtained by Global News, acknowledged that low wages and Bill 124 have had a negative impact on Ontario’s ability to retain nurses in the province’s health care sector.

The internal government documents, which were intended to brief Health Minister Sylvia Jones on a wide range of issues related to her portfolio, cited the government’s own wage restraint legislation and low pay as contributing factors in the province’s health-care staffing issues.

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“It’s now clear that (Doug) Ford and (Sylvia) Jones have always known that Bill 124 was contributing to the staffing crisis in our hospitals,” Ontario NDP health critic France Gélinas said in response to Global News’ reporting.

“They knew Bill 124 was causing overworked and underpaid health-care workers to leave their positions. They just didn’t care.”

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Opposition parties and nursing advocates called on the provincial government to repeal Bill 124. They also demanded the province abandon its appeal against a court decision that threw out the law as unconstitutional.

The revelations were contained in Jones’ transition binder, which Global News obtained through a freedom of information request.

It is designed to inform an incoming cabinet minister of the inner workings of the ministry, decision-making frameworks and key issues the politician may be expected to handle.

One portion of the binder that dealt with “retention issues” in the health-care system stated that “concerns about wage disparity via Bill 124” were a contributing factor, along with wage disparities.

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In another briefing note, the ministry acknowledged that Ontario’s health-care staffing problems worsened during the pandemic.

“Health human resources (HHR) shortages predate the pandemic; however, shortages of nurses and personal support workers have become worse,” one slide created for the health minister’s transition binder says.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the documents showed Ford’s actions were “a blatant dereliction of his duty as premier.”

“Ford’s reckless determination to defend this unjust and unconstitutional legislation is shameful — and another slap in the face of the people who have sacrificed so much for us during the pandemic,” Schreiner said in a statement.

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One page from the briefing documents obtained by Global News also said nurses were moving away from front-line care environments, which, advocates say, have contributed to widespread burnout.

“Attrition is around five per cent per year and has not increased,” the internal document reads. “Nurses are not leaving the profession but are leaving front-line positions.”

That admission was not a surprise but a disappointment, according to the Ontario Nurses’ Association.

“I think it’s appalling that they haven’t acted upon it, that they’ve totally ignored and that they’ve done this on purpose,” Bernie Robinson, ONA president, told Global News.

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“They’ve done it to break the system.”

The province did not answer a list of questions sent by Global News about the documents. Instead, the ministry of health provided a broad statement.

“According to Statistics Canada, between 2016 and 2021, the number of health care workers in Ontario grew by 86,200 – that’s a 18.5 per cent jump in new health care workers in just five years,” the statement read in part.

“Our own numbers tell a similar story. Since 2018, there are over 14,500 more nurses and over 1,000 more family doctors registered to practice and work in Ontario.”

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