You know, over the years this gathering has been held in every corner of Ontario. But this is the first time it has been held everyplace in Ontario.
So, no matter where you are in the province, and no matter which room of the house you’re in, thanks for joining me today. And thanks for welcoming me into your home.
I realize that in these strange, COVID times some politicians find it difficult to deliver talks online.
It’s hard because you don’t get a reaction from people, you don’t hear people laugh at your jokes, and you never hear any applause.
But this lack of response isn’t hard for me. Because I have two daughters at home, one of whom will be a teenager in a few months. So, I’m used to it.
Over the past few months things have been a little less quiet than normal at our house, and most of the work that I’ve done since becoming Leader of the Ontario Liberal Party on March 7th has been conducted from my dining room. Four walls and a table, just like a lot of you.
It’s still amazing to me how fast we went from rooms full of people to being alone in a room. From zooming around the province, the country and even the world to Zoom calls.
But there’s another strange thing that’s happened during COVID. And it’s a bit of a paradox.
While all of us were dealing with very local challenges that were important to us, the news has been dominated by provincial, national and international stories.
For most of us, what was most concerning: the world right outside our front door was spoken about the least. And yet at the same time the order of government that was being asked to do the most was local.
As the leaders of our towns and cities, you had to deal with local outbreaks in long term care and no one rode to your rescue. Your local public health units were the first line of defense and they were all too often out there on their own.
And you had to have answers for your neighbours – those you proudly represent – who were afraid about their health and that of their family, and about their economic future.
Once again, as too often is the case, Ontario’s municipalities were asked to do more – much more, with less.
So I want to say, to all of you who have stepped up and have performed heroically throughout the pandemic, on the front lines of communities large and small, in every corner of our incredible province – thank you.
Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your thoughtfulness. And thank you for doing all that you’ve done to help Ontario flatten the curve.
If COVID has taught us anything, and I really hope it has, it’s that we can do more when we work together.
By now, we must appreciate that one country, one province or one municipality can’t possibly solve the scale of the problems we face on their own.
The only way to defeat major challenges – like a pandemic, like climate change, like a global recession – is to work together.
Bound together, we’re strong and resilient. And together, Ontario’s 444 municipalities can be a powerful force for lasting change.
So, I would argue now is the time for municipal voices to be heard. Because the daily press conferences from Queen’s Park and Ottawa will soon be winding down, and the media lens, and the public’s attention, can swing back to local and regional issues.
Which means we can make the case to build Ontario back up again, town by town, region by region, community by community. And build back stronger than we were, ready to face whatever the future throws at us.
That’s what I want to talk about with you today. About what needs to be done to rebuild our communities as we come out of the pandemic. And about the importance of public education and the re-opening of our schools.
But before I do that I want to make something very clear.
For way too long, too many political parties – including my own, and too many leaders, including many who I admire – have looked at our province as a collection of winnable or unwinnable ridings instead of places where our friends and neighbours live. As red or blue colours on a map instead of living, breathing communities. That’s got to stop.
We only have to look south of the border to see the toxic and deadly results of hyper-partisan politics.
That’s why my plan to build the Ontario Liberal party back up starts in your communities. All of them.
It starts with finding local leaders, people who are already building communities through their work, their volunteerism, their talent.
We’re going to find smart, committed people of every age, of every background, of every orientation that our amazing province already includes – and include them in our party presenting them as candidates in the next election.
And this grassroots, community-centred approach is not only how we will build up my party, but our province, too.
I believe that this approach has been missing, in particular over the past two years. Your ability to build grassroots, community-based, positive change has been weakened.
Prior to the pandemic, you faced unnecessary disruption from Queen’s Park rather than having a stable and predictable partnership. I think that puts all of us at risk. It’s short-sighted.
Because if municipalities can’t pay, can’t become more autonomous, can’t support people the way you all want and need to, many of the programs the federal and provincial governments have begun will be ineffective.
If you can’t afford to pay municipal workers, the people who cared for our communities and put themselves at risk – our firefighters, public transit workers and many more – our social services are at risk, as well as our safety and our health.
So, how do we stop the crisis before it comes?
I think we have to build from the ground up, by investing in critical infrastructure, and making decisions that lay the foundation for sustained success.
A generation ago, the provincial government of the day chose to download thousands of kilometers of roads, highways and bridges. For them, it was convenient and it helped deal with Queen’s Park’s fiscal pressures.
But they stuck your local residents with the bill, and I know that it has been a longstanding struggle to maintain this infrastructure, which was never meant to be funded by local property taxes.
We want to work with you to review whether or not these physical assets, which are important for our safety as well as our economy, should be uploaded.
In addition, more than 100 municipalities across the province rely on annual funds to support local public transit through the Provincial Gas Tax Program. In 2019, the current government cut the increase to this funding, a move that set-back our efforts to encourage more people to leave their cars at home in order to help fight climate change.
You need those funds. You deserve those funds. We’d restore those funds.
In a world where we now realize global supply chains are vulnerable and everyone is thinking local, we’d support Ontario’s critically-important agri-food sector and build two new Ontario Food Terminals – one in the east and the other in the southwest.
We would also help spur local economic development by decentralizing government – and do our best to locate agencies and ministry functions in communities where the cost of housing is low and the quality of life is high.
Of course, that’s not possible without broadband – which is as essential in 2020 as electricity and running water, something that the pandemic has made abundantly clear.
So, I want to make sure Ontario can deliver high-speed, affordable, reliable internet to all Ontarians and I’m determined to make this an urgent priority for my new government.
Delivering on broadband is important for social connectivity and quality of life, but it’s also essential for our prosperity – especially as we provide more direct support to those sectors of the economy that need it most.
All over our province, we have witnessed how small businesses have been battered badly during the pandemic.
While many big-box stores remained open, thousands of entrepreneurs whose businesses populate our province’s main streets were shuttered and now many are in dire shape.
We cannot afford to sit back and simply hope that this problem will fix itself – especially considering that nearly 90% of Ontario’s workers are employed by small or medium-sized businesses.
So, I have called on the government to take concrete steps that would provide immediate relief and support to our small businesses, and help our main streets remain healthy and vibrant.
One – deliver a three-month holiday to the provincial portion of the sales tax;
Two – waive the payroll premiums, like payments for WSIB and the employer health tax, that were deferred for six months back in March;
And, three – help small businesses procure the PPE that’s needed to make sure their workers and customers are safe.
With the rest of the time I have at this platform today, I want to focus on an issue that is absolutely vital for Ontario’s future – the stability of public education, and the need to have a safe reopening of our schools.
Earlier I told you about the daughters that my wife and I are raising.
I consider being a Dad to be the single most important job I will ever have, and I would do anything to make sure that my daughters have every single opportunity to succeed and lead good lives.
I believe that it’s every generation’s responsibility to ensure that the next generation is positioned for success, prosperity and happiness.
From my perspective, the single best way to ensure that my daughters, and the millions of other young people like them across Ontario succeed, is by properly supporting and funding public education.
In fact, when you serve as a Premier of Ontario, I believe your two most important responsibilities are public education and public health care.
As you may recall, for most of the last 12 months, our public education system was in a state of disarray, featuring the kind of labour unrest that disrupted the school year, frayed parents’ nerves and did nothing to help our kids thrive.
And then the pandemic struck, requiring two million students and over one hundred thousand teachers to rapidly shift to online learning – which was very tough on everyone involved.
In exactly three weeks from today, Ontario’s public schools will reopen.
My daughters will be starting grade 8 and grade 4, and I’m deeply concerned that the current government’s plan for this reopening fails to make the grade.
Several weeks ago, I released the Ontario Liberal plan for the start of the school year.
It was detailed and fully-costed, and it featured an iron-clad commitment to cap class sizes at 15, so that our students could be physically-distant, and therefore safe, while learning.
It called for partnering with municipalities to add thousands of new, unconventional classroom spaces in community centres, arenas, public libraries and even outdoors again, to help us keep class sizes small.
And it included the hiring of enough certified teachers and custodians to make sure all classrooms were properly supervised and cleaned.
A few days after our plan was released, the government released theirs.
No commitment to smaller class sizes. No ability to guarantee adequate physical distancing. Too few new teachers and custodians to make a meaningful, positive difference. And, a decision to invest about 10% of what is actually needed to get this right – an amount that equals less than a dollar a day, per-child in the public education system.
In other words, after months of wasting time and squandering the opportunity to forge a real plan, Doug Ford chose to treat our kids, their families and everyone who works in public education – teachers, principals, support staff and custodians – like an afterthought.
This is not good enough. Not for my daughters or anyone else in Ontario.
And you don’t have to take my word for it.
Since the release of the government’s plan, a clear consensus has emerged from both health experts and those on the front line in education that Doug Ford dropped the ball, especially as it relates to smaller class sizes.
As a province, we have all worked so hard to flatten the curve and all indications suggest that we are moving in the right direction. It is inconceivable to me that Doug Ford would want to roll the dice and take a chance with the start of the school year.
But it’s not too late.
Doug Ford still has the chance to reconsider because, as the saying goes, it’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.
So, I urge all of you as leaders in communities in every corner of Ontario to push the government to take the time and make the investments necessary to get it right.
And getting it right means that our public schools are open and safe, so that Moms and Dads can go back to work as our economy comes back to life with the peace of mind they deserve to have.
I want to thank you for giving me the chance to share my thoughts with you. I wish you all the very best for a successful, albeit unusual, AMO conference. I look forward to being back with all of you, in person, next year.
In the meantime, please stay safe and healthy.