Ontario Premier Doug Ford is naming Rod Phillips, who previously resigned after taking a Caribbean vacation during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the province’s new long-term care minister, replacing Dr. Merrilee Fullerton.
The announcement is part of a broader shuffle that sees 15 PC MPPs either moving ministerial positions or joining the cabinet and it comes less than a year before the next provincial election.
Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Ontario’s lieutenant governor, presided over a virtual ceremony at Queen’s Park on Friday — a first in the province’s history — as new cabinet members were sworn in from their homes or offices.
“As we continue our work to rebuild and support Ontario’s health system, our renewed team is well positioned to deliver on the priorities that matter to Ontarians, including getting more people back to work, making life more affordable, supporting businesses and job creators and building transit infrastructure,” Ford said in a brief statement Friday afternoon.
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For months opposition politicians and long-term care advocates have been calling for Fullerton’s resignation over her handling of the long-term care portfolio during the pandemic. A scathing report by the Ontario Long-Term Care COVID-19 commission found Ontario’s nursing homes were neglected and unprepared for a pandemic.
However, Fullerton remains in the cabinet as the new minister of children, community and social services, replacing Todd Smith as he becomes the new minister of energy.
As recently as May, Ford defended Fullerton’s performance, saying he had “full confidence” in her and that she “showed leadership.”
Phillips, who previously served as Ontario’s finance minister, resigned at the end of 2020 after it was learned he was vacationing in St. Barts.
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When it comes to other changes, David Piccini becomes minister of environment, replacing Jeff Yurek, and Kinga Surma is replacing Laurie Scott as minister of infrastructure.
Prabmeet Singh Sarkaria is the new president of the treasury board, which has been split from the finance file, while Lisa Thompson replaces Ernie Hardeman in agriculture, food and rural affairs.
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Yurek, Scott and Hardeman, who represent rural Ontario ridings, were dropped from the cabinet.
Health Minister Christine Elliott, Education Minister Steven Lecce, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, Attorney General Doug Downey and Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy remain in their prominent positions.
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Meanwhile, John Yakabuski is out as minister of natural resources, as that file goes to Greg Rickford, who is taking on a merged file as minister of northern development, mining, natural resources and Forestry, as well as Indigenous affairs.
Other new cabinet members included Parm Gill (minister of citizenship and multiculturalism), Stan Cho (associate minister of transportation), Jane McKenna (associate minister of children and women’s issues), Nina Tangri (associate minister of small business and red tape) and Kaleed Rasheed (associate minister of digital government).
When asked for reaction to the announcement, Ontario NDP deputy leader Sara Singh raised concern about Phillips’ new role, saying families affected by the pandemic’s toll on long-term care are looking for accountability. Singh said Phillips’ vacation scandal suggests he is not the right fit.
“I think it doesn’t restore faith for families who are looking to ensure that our long-term care system is going to be improved,” Singh said, who also criticized Fullerton’s new role.
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“We saw nearly 4,000 seniors and staff lose their lives under her leadership,” she said. “I’m very worried for families of children with autism, families with children in care. Are they going to get the support that they need?”
The Ontario Liberal Party highlighted the retention of ministers who were key players in the government’s pandemic response, particularly in education and health.
“By leaving Christine Elliott and Stephen Lecce in place, Ford is rewarding the two people that share responsibility with him for one of the most incompetent responses to COVID-19 in the western world,” Liberal Stephen Blais said.
Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner accused Ford of focusing on the 2022 election versus pandemic recovery.
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“Playing musical chairs will not fix the public health, economic and environmental crises this province faces,” he said in a statement.
The union representing elementary teachers also criticized the decision to keep Lecce in his post.
“By keeping Minister Lecce in his role as minister of education, a minister who has not engaged with educators and their unions in a meaningful way since March 2020, Premier Ford has once again proven his disregard for public education,” it said in a statement.
— With files from The Canadian Press
This is a developing story that will be updated throughout the afternoon.
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