Ontario Premier Ford visits vaccination program for employees organized by Humber River Hospital. Image credit: Premier of Ontario Photography/Flickr

Had Doug Ford been British prime minister in September of 1939 when the Nazis invade Poland, he would have declared war on Bolivia and bombed Greenland.

Then, when his troops refused his command to attack the wrong places, Ford would have made a tearful apology. He would not have made any effort to belatedly do the right thing, however — except to promise his government was “working on” more appropriate actions.

The real Doug Ford made his tearful statement of chagrin from the security of an outdoor location on Thursday, April 22, 2021. He said he was sorry more than once. But he failed to make a single concrete new commitment to deal with the ravages wrought by the pandemic’s third wave in Ontario.

The Ontario Conservative premier ruefully noted he had the luxury to stay away from the office after exposure to COVID-19. All Ontario workers, he admitted, should have the same right, but they don’t.

However, there was no concrete follow-up. The premier provided zero details as to what he and his government have in mind when it comes to guaranteed paid sick leave.

Ford’s non-specific, ephemeral commitment on guaranteed leave encouraged some, but they might have been counting their sick days prematurely. Later that same day, in a tweet, the premier threw cold water on their hopes.

“While we will work to fill the gaps in the federal sick leave program,” the premier tweeted, “our government will not impose any additional burden on the backs of Ontario businesses …”

In other words, this Ontario government will not even restore the modest measure it rescinded shortly after taking power: the two-days’ guaranteed paid sick leave enacted by its predecessor. Those two days were paid by employers.   

Thumbs down from Dr. Juni

What the Ford-ites apparently want to do is provide some funds for the first few days of workers’ illnesses, which are not included in the federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB).

Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, responded quickly. Such a plan, he said, would be woefully inadequate.

Juni told CBC radio what Ontario must do now is crystal clear. When people are sick, the senior doctor said, they should be able to call their employers and tell them they are staying home, without fear of losing their jobs or any of their pay.

Juni said his home country of Switzerland has such a legal guarantee, and it has helped it weather the third wave, despite other policies Juni characterized as “unwise.”

In Canada, almost all unionized workers have the right to phone in sick, as do most professionals, such as engineers, lawyers, bankers, stockbrokers, and accountants.

Some small, non-union businesses offer sick leave to their workers voluntarily. The Ottawa bakery Bread by Us is one of those. Owner Jessica Carpinone says providing her employees with unlimited paid sick days is not only the right thing to do, it makes good business sense.

But a great many low-paid employees in essential workplaces, such as warehouses, lack that basic human right. The best they can hope for is to stay away from work and lose pay, but not lose their jobs. Even that inadequate outcome is far from a sure thing for tens of thousands of Ontario workers.

Dr. Juni and other medical specialists have been telling us for a while that workplaces which do not provide sick leave are spreading the coronavirus — a virus which, in its variant forms, is getting more aggressive. It is now attacking younger people. Medical authorities report that in many Canadian intensive care units (ICUs) most COVID-19 patients are now in the 40-to-60 age group.

The Ford government has unambiguously signalled it is not going to take Dr. Juni’s advice. Instead, the government will heed loud and insistent voices in the business community, not its own scientists.

Like the Ford government, business groups such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) hide behind the smoke screen of the federal government’s emergency sick leave program.

During his apology performance, where he was supposedly taking personal responsibility for his mismanagement of the third wave, Ford even managed to take a churlish swipe at the federal government. He said his government was disappointed the federal government had not enhanced its sickness benefit.

Evading a provincial responsibility

The Trudeau Liberals brought in the CRSB under pressure from the NDP. It was to be a short-term, stop-gap measure, designed to mitigate some of the economic hardship wrought by the pandemic.

But the federal government is severely limited in what it can do in the area of labour. The vast majority of Canadian workers fall under provincial jurisdiction. The provinces regulate their hours of work, their vacations, their health and safety, and all other workplace matters.

Ottawa would not have the ability, for instance, to tell provincially regulated businesses they had to give their workers time off, even unpaid time, when they were sick. Provinces such as Ontario would almost certainly raise their voices in protest if it tried.

The federal government guarantees three days of employer-paid sick leave for workers under its own jurisdiction. That includes time off to care for a sick family member.

The federal labour code is better than that of any province when it comes to sick leave. But the Canada Labour Code, as it is called, only applies to the minority of workers in federally regulated sectors, such as international and interprovincial transport, banking, and communications.

The one area of worker protection where the federal government does have complete jurisdiction is insurance against unemployment.

The Canadian government enacted unemployment insurance in 1940, with memories of the Great Depression still strong in people’s minds. But they had to amend the Constitution to do so. The provinces were happy to go along, back then. It meant the federal government would take the burden of helping unemployed workers off their shoulders.

There are no plans to amend the Constitution today to give the federal government greater authority over the rights of all Canadian workers. Even if the Trudeau government were interested, provinces these days are more jealous of guarding their powers than they were 81 years ago.

The workers Dr. Juni worries about are all, constitutionally, Ontario’s responsibility. The Ford government can fulminate against the federal government all it wants, but the premier cannot change that fact.

Which adviser will sit Doug Ford down and explain that to him?

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image credit: Premier of Ontario Photography/Flickr

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...