With the Ontario provincial election just a couple of weeks away, a number of issues are top of mind for the non-profit sector, including long-term care, the healthcare workforce, housing, education, and the environment.
When Ontario Liberal leader Steven Del Duca kicked off his campaign with a bold pledge to end for-profit long-term care (LTC), the party was sending a clear signal to voters that a sizable segment of the not-for-profit sector will play a prominent role in the province’s first election since the beginning of the pandemic. The party’s platform includes a pledge to add 58,000 non-profit LTC beds to the province’s 75,000 spaces, marking a sharp acceleration compared to the Ford government’s 2018 promise to add 30,000 new spaces in five years.
The move appears to be a direct response to mounting evidence, gathered during the pandemic, that residents of for-profit LTC facilities were more likely to fall ill or die from COVID-19 infections, as Anne Silversides reported in The Philanthropist Journal last September.
The transition to a non-profit [long-term care] model will take a long time, and it will be complex.Cathy Taylor, ONN
“It’s a very aggressive pledge,” says Cathy Taylor, executive director of the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN), noting that the commitment seems to refer to the operation of LTCs, not the development and construction aspect. But, she adds, the transition to a non-profit operating model “will take a long time, and it will be complex.” (The ONN’s election wish-list includes removing for-profit operators from care sectors.)
The transition may be even more complicated than many Ontarians realize. Donna Duncan, the executive director of the Ontario Long Term Care Association, which represents both for-profit and non-profit homes, points out that since the devastating LTC tragedies of early 2020, many operators can no longer obtain insurance, which means they must self-insure or expose their directors to legal liability against the civil class-action suits that have been launched by grieving family members.
“This is a big issue for our non-profits,” she says, adding that the lack of insurance also limits their access to financing at a time when the front end of the baby boom generation is reaching old age. “If our homes can’t secure financing, they’re not going to be able to build.”
The future of the LTC sector, however, isn’t the only issue that Ontario’s non-profit sector will be watching as voters prepare to cast ballots on June 2. According to Taylor, other top-of-mind concerns for the sector include the rapid escalation of real estate prices and the demand for affordable housing, financial supports for non-profit homecare and disability services, and wage parity for personal support workers, who have been on the front lines of the pandemic.
Indeed, the need to rebuild the pandemic-hobbled healthcare workforce, much of which is employed by public agencies, hospitals, and non-profit providers, may well be one of the most pressing labour-force issues facing governments in all regions and at all three levels. Duncan says no government has come up with a meaningful plan. “That’s the crisis,” she adds. “We’re going to have to be really, really bold.”
Also, one of the ONN’s key pre-pandemic advocacy themes has gained new resonance in 2022: decent work – a goal that is especially important in low-wage sectors like health- and home-care. “We’re seeing a renewed interest in decent work, especially for racialized people and women,” Taylor says. “There’s a real interest in the sector to do better.”
Herewith, a survey of some of the other election themes that have a bearing on the non-profit sector:
Veteran public education activist Annie Kidder, who heads People for Education, says she’s concerned that school issues will take a back seat in an election dominated by public concerns over inflation, housing, and jobs. Education, of course, was a massive worry in the first year of the pandemic, with schools shifting to online teaching. When classes resumed, hundreds of thousands of families worried about children bringing COVID home from school.
Kidder says the provincial government and school boards focused on mechanical solutions – better ventilation, high-efficiency filters – instead of questions such as the mental-health toll that the pandemic inflicted on tens of thousands of children. Safety, she says, “took up all the space.” She adds that the education system’s next challenge will be “learning loss” due to missed classes and remote learning.
A range of organizations have thrown their voices into the campaign, urging parties to find solutions to an unprecedented housing affordability crisis that went from bad to much worse during the latter half of the pandemic. They include groups as diverse as the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario – which is calling for rent subsidies, the construction of 10,000 new affordable units per year, and the establishment of an Indigenous-led Indigenous housing strategy – and Vote4Housing, a coalition that includes the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association and the Co-operative Housing Federation of Ontario, as well as several other organizations advocating for homeless people, tenants, and anti-poverty groups.
During the final years of Kathleen Wynne’s run as premier, advocacy networks promoting community benefits agreements (CBAs) with large infrastructure projects made headway with provincial agencies like Metrolinx. These CBAs, negotiated with large construction contractors on multibillion-dollar projects, ensured that jobs, training, and other benefits flowed back to lower-income neighbourhoods that were seeing new transit lines or public-housing redevelopment projects in their communities.
“Community benefits is not a partisan issue,” says Rosemarie Powell, executive director of the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN). Still, TCBN and its allies in the labour movement had to push the provincial Tories to maintain this approach. Metrolinx is still negotiating CBAs but recently announced it would drop diversity hiring targets, seen as a key objective. “The government has to show leadership,” Powell says.
According to advocacy groups, the Ford government gutted some of the key protections for ecologically sensitive areas and the Greater Toronto Greenbelt. Its promise to build highways such as the 413 and the Bradford bypass not only endanger valuable agricultural land but point to future sprawl and greenfield development.
Environmental Defence points out that the Tories cancelled almost 800 renewable energy contracts when they came into office. The group is calling for the phaseout of gas-fired generation, an end to Highway 413, more public transit investment, and reinstating energy-efficiency programs geared at homeowners that were cancelled early in the Tories’ term.
The Ford government’s substantial bet on the electric vehicle sector includes pledges to make progress on tapping the mineral reserves in the so-called Ring of Fire several hundred kilometres north of Thunder Bay, a long-delayed resource megaproject that turns on the construction of an all-weather road to the area. According to a recent investigation by The Narwhal, based on access-to-information documents, there’s been virtually no progress, in part because of a lawsuit by Neskantaga First Nation, whose territory sits on the proposed road corridor. The First Nation alleges that the province is only going through the motions with its constitutionally mandated consultations with local Indigenous communities.
Meanwhile, Shared Path, a charity that aims to improve collaborative land-use planning between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups, is taking the government to task for its reliance on “ministerial zoning orders,” which are cabinet edicts that override municipal land-use planning approvals and have been a favourite tool of the Ford government. The practice, this group says, “undermines Truth and Reconciliation efforts such as Call to Action #52: that governments accept Aboriginal title over land and that the burden of proving any limitations on these rights shifts to those who assert that such limitations exist.”
Queervote.ca, a coalition of advocacy groups, is using the election to push for more resources and attention to issues of poverty, homelessness, and health in queer and trans communities. Such proactive investments, says coalition spokesperson Fae Johnstone, will serve to reduce healthcare expenditures. “We have to ensure a 2SLGBTQIA+ lens is always part of the conversation, because our communities are over-represented by just about every metric in poverty and homelessness, rates of intimate partner violence and sexual harassment, and more,” they say.
The coalition also wants to see more support from OHIP for gender-affirming procedures, including access to hormone-replacement therapy. “We need to immediately expand coverage and invest in better training for family doctors while bolstering underfunded trans health programs,” says Johnstone, who is also the executive director of Wisdom2Action. “Trans people shouldn’t have to pay tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket for medically necessary health services that demonstrably improve mental health, overall well-being, and safety. Trans kids and their families shouldn’t have to struggle to find inclusive counselling or peer support programs.”
ONN released its election wish list in April, and it includes four core goals, including the establishment of a home-in-government secretariat for the non-profit sector and investing in non-profit workers and volunteers. The coalition is calling for the next government to take action on a number of fronts related to the well-being of the sector:
- create a provincial volunteer recovery strategy to address the negative impacts of the pandemic on volunteerism
- redesign funding agreements to be longer-term, more flexible, and reflective of all human resource costs, so non-profits can spend more time on their missions rather than paperwork
- expand permanent pandemic pay to include all front-line and support workers
- repeal Bill 124 (a contentious wage-freeze law) and commit to using overall funding envelopes to manage costs, rather than wage controls that constrain provincially funded non-profits in attracting and retaining talent
- improve employment standards with permanent paid sick days and by proclaiming the Pay Transparency Act
Ultimately, with just a couple of weeks to voting day, Taylor hopes that non-profits will resist the temptation to stay on the sidelines because of advocacy chill, a long-standing concern. In a 2016 essay in The Philanthropist Journal, Roger Gibbins, a senior fellow at the Max Bell Foundation, characterized advocacy by charities as a “moral imperative.” Rather than discussing what charities can or cannot do, he wrote, “the focus is on what they should do: on why policy advocacy is an inherent part of the charitable mission. This case rests upon public benefits – better public policy – and organizational benefits – the capacity of charities to compete for thought leadership and public support.”
In the context of the provincial election, Taylor adds, the reluctance to engage with the parties “is a missed opportunity.”