Health Leadership

The Snowbird

Ontario finance minister Rod Phillips should resign, but he probably won’t, and he won’t be asked to.

In Canada we have this tradition of the snowbird. That’s a person who enjoys our beautiful summer months (often at their cottage by the lake) and in the winter packs their bags and moves to a warmer climate for several month, migrating, just like a snowbird.

It’s thought of as a tradition, but of course, it’s also a status. Not everybody can move south for the winter; you have to have a certain level of privilege and wealth. Most of us can’t move south for the winter.

And this winter, especially, the fiction has been that you’re not allowed to move south to escape the snow. The fiction has been (along with “we’re all in this together”) that unessential travel is prohibited, that we shouldn’t be taking a winter vacation at all. Heck, I can’t even go to Quebec, which is about 50 kilometers from here.

So it takes a certain about of hubris to do it anyway, and of course there’s a lot of nodding and winking all around because as we all know the rules about the pandemic don’t really apply to the sort of people who have the privilege and wealth to be snowbirds. No doubt Rod Phillips is just one member of a very large flock.

But he is also the finance minister for the government of Ontario, the same government that has instituted those restrictions, and more recently, even more severe restrictions, as the pandemic has worsened. Yes there’s a vaccine, but just as we saw with masks and personal protective equipment in the spring, it takes a certain amount of time to produce and distribute these. And meanwhile, people die if we don’t follow the rules.

So when the finance minister doesn’t follow the rules, he is showing a certain disregard for the people who die. And it leads us to suspect that this disregard applies to other aspects of his work and life as a finance minister, the sort of disregard that would, say, cause him to wait until after Christmas to implement a much-needed lockdown, instead of two weeks before, when it was apparent to everyone that otherwise we would see the record levels of new cases we are seeing today.

That’s bad enough. But the finance minister knew it was wrong to fly south for the winter, did it anyway, and then covered it up with a series of tweets and videos designed to make it look like he was still living and working out of his home in Ajax. We can see him patronizing local vbusinesses, participating in interviews, even sending a Christmas message from in front of his fireplace – all while he relaxed on the beach in St. Barts.

So he should resign. If he had any sense of decency and propriety he would resign. The last thing we need is that sort of deception in a finance minister.

But he won’t resign, and he won’t be told to resign, because despite what he said as the story broke, the Premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, knew all along his finance minister was a snowbird, just as he knew when his finance minister also took a vacation to Switzerland in August. Ford says, “I can tell you I’m very upset. I’m very frustrated with the situation. I stand out here every single day and tell people to stay at home,” he said.

But who is he frustrated with? Phillips? Well, no, because he knew Phillips was on vacation and was fine with it. If he’s frustrated with anything, it’s that Phillips got caught. And now he will have a “tough conversation” with Phillips, probably along the lines of “you got caught, you can’t do it again.” And we’ll go back to the same sort of decision-making that puts the interests of his and Phillips’s business friends above the lives of the people of Ontario.

Overall, Ford has done a good job with the pandemic. But the cracks are beginning to show.

Update: Phillips resigned a few hours after I posted this.


The Greenbelts

It’s getting harder and harder to follow issues like this with most of the news media retreating behind paywalls or advertising barriers. Governments count on that.

Just so, it was a struggle to find out just why half the province’s Greenbelt Council (along with its president) resigned this week. The CBC article on this is a convoluted mess (which is unusual for CBC). The double-negative in the headline makes it clear how much they’re trying to tiptoe around political sensibilities.

The Canadian Press is clearer, and here’s the story: “the bill would strip power from local conservation authorities and expand ministerial authority on zoning and other potentially sensitive environmental issues.”

Now why would the province need to do this? Sure, there’s that whole argument about red tape blocking development, but these are conservation lands. They’re not supposed to be developed. So let’s be clear: the province wants to develop conservation lands.

Now as the CBC article (ever so tactfully) says, “Premier Doug Ford’s government has vowed, repeatedly, to not allow development in the Greenbelt — a permanently protected area of green space that surrounds the Golden Horseshoe area.”

But who believes that? More to the point, if the conservation authorities are stripped of all authority, who is there to stop them? In today’s dearth of news coverage, who would even notice? Once the decisions are taken from public bodies and put into back rooms, nobody will know the decision has been taken until the bulldozers roll through.

And that’s a problem. As David Crombie says, as we wipe out these natural areas, we’re less and less able to deal with natural disasters like flooding, which leads to greater costs in the future. We also lose habitats for wildlife, and we lose the green space urban dwellers need in order to rest and relax.

The government can dance around this all they like. But decisions on protected land belong in the public spotlight, where the interests of the entire community can be heard, and not only those of developers looking for a windfall.