Ontario school reopenings show the old Doug Ford is returning

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Doug Ford gives a press briefing on August 21, 2020. Image: Doug Ford/Twitter

Well that was a refreshing Doug Ford interlude. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, he has been everything he wasn't before, and that we didn't expect, Ontario's Gregor Samsa: metamorphosing into another creature, with appendages he never had.

Instead of promising to "unleash" the private sector, he released the public one. The words, gravy train, never passed his lips. Rather than lay big hates on Justin Trudeau and John Tory, he lauded them. Trump, the adored, got slagged. It had an ingenuous quality, like he'd discovered an alter ego he enjoyed being.

Till the school openings. Old, dogged Doug, is on his way back.

The hinge of the retransition is class size, exclusively. You can see why parents are wrung out over it. They want their kids in school. But they also want them to have a fighting chance against the virus.

With 15 kids per room you can picture them with the defensible space we’ve gotten used to. With 30, it's like they'll have their hands tied. All Doug needed to do is mandate 15 per class. He's already said he'll spend whatever it takes to keep kids safe. Yet no mandate.

Instead, he sounds like Trump again. When politely questioned on class size, he dodges and maunders about the superiority of his plan, best in the country, "bar none." The clichés are back and they sound like clichés again.

He says he's taking advice from "my chief medical officer," Dr. David Williams. Bad argument. He's the only CMO who's been savaged publicly, often, by other MDs and clued-in journalists. Early on, the government sent in a "troubleshooter" to cover for him. They left him in place to sustain public confidence and give Doug someone to pass the buck to if things went sideways.

This has the quality of a small tragedy. During the crisis, Doug said he doesn't believe in passing the buck and then, remarkably, didn't do it. Even when he could've laid blame on, say, Kathleen Wynne. (Dr. W. was on her watch.) Now the buck-passing scruple has also faded -- and it was so admirable.

This clarifies why leadership matters in a pandemic. When Democrats in the U.S. whine about Trump not providing it, it sounds abstract and self-serving. But if a leader like Doug sounds like he's blustering to cover inaction and can't explain why he won't do what he said everyone should -- like safe distancing in classrooms -- then why the hell should any of us take it seriously? Thus does joint action disintegrate. They've given up all the ground they gained. We're back at Toronto City Hall and the Raptors' victory rally. Cue the boos at Doug's name.

OK, but why? Why avoid the issue of class size? The other target they've passed the buck to is teachers' unions. Doug and education minister Stephen Lecce laced into them this week, in ways that they've never attacked long-term care companies who were disproportionately involved in thousands of deaths.

Because, I can only guess, smaller classes mean more teachers, which could strengthen unions. And folks like Doug and his party hate unions.

"I differentiate between labour and leadership," says Doug. He loves "the front-line folks" like teachers or workers, but not unions they've built to protect themselves and leaders they've elected as democratically as any legislature.

It's partly based on a small or medium business mentality. You built the firm, like Doug's family, and resent outsider unions interfering with your control and "your" workers. It runs deep. Most of us have irrational baselines like that. None of which will stop unions from fighting for their members' safety. Imagine going into a class of 30 little kids, without enough mere space to limit contact.

There's also a devious strategy at work. The government is counting on enough parents keeping their kids out, that class sizes will fall without adding staff. But that's cruel to both sets of kids: those that go back and those that don't.

As for teachers, I'm not sure I've ever known one who didn't love going into their classroom and "shutting that door." It's when the magic starts, they say, despite bureaucrats, ministries, overwork -- they surely want to be there.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Doug Ford/Twitter

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