Ontario throne speech sets out economic recovery from COVID-19 as priority

Avoiding future lockdowns is Ontario's "ultimate goal," as laid out Monday in a throne speech that emphasized recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, but made no mention of child care or education.

Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell delivered Premier Doug Ford's throne speech, marking the start of a new legislative session and the opportunity to present a renewed agenda eight months ahead of the next provincial election.

The speech, which the Opposition critics slammed as short on details and vision, focused largely on what the government has done - or has already promised to do - to support the health-care and long-term care systems during the pandemic.

Thanks to Ontario's high vaccination rates - more than 86 per cent of eligible residents have received at least one dose - the province is entering a "new phase" of the pandemic, and while cases may rise as people head indoors it won't be cause for panic, the speech said.

"If additional public health measures are needed, they will be localized and targeted," Dowdeswell said.

"At the advice of the chief medical officer of health, they will seek to minimize disruptions to businesses and families. The ultimate goal, shared by all, is avoiding future lockdowns."

Massive levels of new spending for supports during the pandemic have left Ontario in a significant financial hole. The latest projection for the 2021-2022 deficit is $32.4 billion. The speech said that the province's economic recovery will be fuelled by growth, not spending cuts or tax hikes.

In particular, it mentions building roads, highways and transit.

"There's no question over the past 18 months the people of Ontario have been tested like never before," Dowdeswell said.

"Through it all, during what felt like our darkest days, we've also seen the best of what our province has to offer - strength, determination, compassion, generosity, grit ... This is the Ontario spirit that will drive us as we work together to build a brighter, more prosperous future."

Young adults, students and hospitality workers were specifically mentioned in the speech as people who have had to shoulder large economic burdens during the pandemic.

"At the same time, take-home pay for many workers has not kept up with rising costs," the speech said.

One of Ford's major promises from the 2018 election that has not yet been fulfilled is a pledge to cut income taxes by 20 per cent for the second income-tax bracket.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees said that workers' take-home pay is falling behind in part due to the Ford government cancelling a plan to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and capping wage increases for public sector workers at one per cent.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said there was nothing new in the speech to help patients, students, workers or small businesses.

"It was disappointing to see this government's thin gruel of a throne speech," she said.

Monday's speech marks the first time the legislature has convened since early June. It had been set to return on Sept. 13, but early last month Ford prorogued it until after the federal election, which was held Sept. 20.

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner noted that the government had said it needed to prorogue because the federal election would have an impact on its agenda, but it didn't mention any of the campaign's top issues such as child care, the housing crisis or the climate crisis.

"That had to be one of the most uninspiring throne speeches I've ever heard," he said.

The first question period is set for Tuesday morning, but Ford will not be in attendance.

Government House Leader Paul Calandra revealed that Ford was travelling to the north Monday to meet with front-line workers, something that Ford's office had not announced. They later divulged that the premier would be in Timmins and would return Tuesday afternoon.

Opposition questions to the government in the new session are expected to touch on rapid testing for schools and an ongoing dispute with the province's optometrists that has led them to withdraw provincially insured eye services.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2021.