It is just over a year since the last Federal Election on 21 October 2019 and our new MP for Newmarket-Aurora has had time to get his feet under the table. How is he doing? 

Pretty much as I expected.

Van Bynen, at 69, was the oldest of the new intake of 91 rookie MPs. He is a loyal foot soldier and is never going to step out of line. (Photo right: last week, voting virtually from his Bayview Ave office)

Until the pandemic struck he was in the bottom 5% of rookie MPs in terms of interventions in the House of Commons. (My figures are from 8 March 2020) He took a while to find his feet.

Only four rookies out of 91 spoke on fewer occasions that Van Bynen. (Zuberi Sameer (Lib); Tim Louis (Lib); Mike Kelloway (Lib) and Derek Sloan (Con))

Of course, the number of speeches an MP makes in the Chamber is no guide to their quality. 

In the House of Commons as elsewhere Van Bynen always reads his speeches from a prepared text – even when they are very short, no more than a minute or two. For someone who has been in the public eye for years this has always surprised me.

Van Bynen says little about his "Priorities"

In the first of his four micro speeches on 11 December 2019 he thanked people for electing him and focussed on his priorities:

I have heard very clearly that our community is concerned about climate change, affordable housing, infrastructure funding, health care and a need for a long-term fiscal plan, but not at the expense of creating a social deficit. These things will by my priorities during the upcoming term.

He told the media that preserving local heritage would also be a priority but we’ve heard nothing from him about that. He has been silent on the unlawful demolition of the Simpson Building on Main Street by his friend Bob Forrest.  

When he went to the photo-shoot at Deerfield in August, we learn that the promised “affordable housing” has now morphed into “attainable housing”. Whatever that means.

The importance of hugging

On 6 February 2020 he spoke for a couple of minutes on the importance of hugging. On 27 February 2020 he spoke about the Coldest Night of the Year fundraising walk and on 28 February 2020 he asked the Minister of Health what the Government was doing to prevent and treat cancer. All in all, about five minutes work.

The Benefits of Retirement

2019 was a very good year for Tony Van Bynen, the retired Mayor of Newmarket. In January 2019, he received the second tranche of the $162,739 of taxpayers’ money designed to cushion his voluntary retirement from municipal politics. He kept quiet about that second tranche for as long as he could. He then joined the Liberal Party after hearing that Kyle Peterson, the then Liberal MP, was standing down. No-one else threw their hat into the ring and Van Bynen probably surprised himself by becoming the official Liberal candidate without a contest. And in the Federal Election in October he landed on his feet, taking 42% of the vote. The Liberals nationwide got support from 33.1% of Canadian voters - the lowest share of the popular vote in modern Canadian history.

Dining out on our dollar (again)

In the early months after his election while he was getting to know the ropes he was billing taxpayers for breakfasts at the Buttery and elsewhere. It was just like old times. He holds meetings over bacon and eggs to “plan his priorities” and we pick up the tab. At least he did until the pandemic struck. In recent months he has stopped billing us for his breakfasts.

Partisan Games

Van Bynen sits on the Health Committee and he has a slot at every meeting to ask his pre-prepared questions. To my mind, they are all pretty softball. He is not the type of politician who wants to generate controversy. He says he dislikes “partisanship”. When others agree with him that means they want to get things done. When they disagree with him they are playing “partisan games”.

In an interview with Newmarket Today on 25 September 2020 about the Throne Speech he trilled:

“We’ve learned during a time of crisis, partisanship falls to the wayside and everybody focuses on what’s right and what’s best for our shared constituencies… Everybody is focused on finding the best solutions.”

Minority Parliament means different rules

But that changed when the Conservatives, the Bloc and the NDP wanted a say in setting the agenda for forthcoming meetings of the Health Committee - it is a minority Parliament after all. (An election is off the cards for the moment but I doubt we shall have to wait another three years.)

The Opposition Parties want the Health Committee to focus on a range of matters such as vaccine development, Canada’s level of preparedness in responding to another pandemic and the availability of PPE equipment.  There will be a vote in the Chamber of the House of Commons tomorrow (Monday 26 October 2020) to decide the Committee's work programme. 

Speaking in the House of Commons virtually, from his constituency office in Bayview Avenue, Van Bynen makes it clear he wants the Committee to focus primarily on mental health:

“I am frustrated and disappointed in the Conservatives' new approach on the health committee. We did not always agree before, but it was always clear that everyone on the committee had a common goal to be productive rather than play partisan games.” 

Mental health is a big issue and it is laudable that Van Bynen is running with that particular ball. But that doesn't mean that vaccine development, the crisis in long-term care and all those other big issues identified by all the opposition parties are secondary and have to go to the back of the queue for discussion and debate in the Health Committee.

Shape-shifting

Personally, I would have forgiven a lot of Van Bynen’s politics (which are light years away from my own) if he had just stuck with a few principled positions. But his endless shape-shifting and weaselly evasions leave me cold.

In a virtual Town Hall with local members of the Liberal Party on 15 October 2020 he couldn’t or wouldn’t express an opinion on the planned cutbacks in the number of Registered Nurses at Southlake. That, he says, is a matter for the CEO Arden Krystal.

Gun Violence - empty promises

On the epidemic of gun violence he parrots the official line, telling his on-line viewers that the Government would allow municipalities to decide on handguns and where they should be stored. Oh dear! Before the election he said private individuals shouldn’t have handguns, a position he has now abandoned. And we get this drivel from Van Bynen at the same time the Chief of York Regional Police is telling the Regional Council that shooting incidents across the Region have gone up from 4 in 2015 to 57 in 2019. 

It’s difficult not to feel a little disappointed in Tony Van Bynen MP. 

He is furiously active on social media, endlessly tweeting and re-tweeting the latest Government line from Ottawa.

Yet he is predictably silent on many of the things that really matter.

He never shows leadership.

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Update on 26 October 2020: The House of Commons today instructed the Health Committee to undertake a study on the emergency situation facing Canadians in light of the second wave of the Covid 19 pandemic etc etc. The Liberals (including Van Bynen) voted against the motion and the Opposition parties won 176 votes to 152 votes.

Update on 28 October 2020: Last week the Liberal Government took the view that a motion from the Conservatives instructing a Committee to investigate the WE charity affair was a vote of non-confidence in the Government. The Government survived the vote on 21 October 2020 by 180-146 with the NDP, Greens and Independents voting with the Liberals. But another Conservative motion on 26 October 2020 (see update above) instructing the Health Committee to investigate further the Covid pandemic - with extensive powers to call for papers and witness - was not deemed to be a vote of non-confidence.  Andrew Coyne in the Globe and Mail says Parliament should decide, not the Government, what constitutes a non-confidence vote. In the UK House of Commons a motion tabled in this form: "That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government" is always taken as first item of business on the next sitting day.

 

In the summer of 2018 the contractor, Joe Peluso, President of Peltar Paving and General Contracting Company Limited, had a contract with the York Catholic District School Board to reconstruct the car park at the Canadian Martyrs’ Elementary School in Newmarket's London Road. His earth-compacting machinery sent huge vibration waves into neighbouring properties on Harrison Drive (where I live) causing damage. It was so bad one neighbour called the Police.  

The York Catholic District School Board refused to accept any responsibility saying it was a matter for their contractor’s insurers and ours. Unfortunately, insurance companies do not insure for property damage caused by vibration and ground movement. The only recourse is to go to Court.

Pre-condition surveys

But without a pre-condition survey undertaken by the contractor before work begins it is impossible to establish causality. The contractor could say, for example, that the crack on the garage wall was pre-existing. It was there before the work began.

It is for this reason that the Town itself offers pre-condition surveys for the owners of homes adjacent to roads which are to be reconstructed. This happened to us in Harrison Drive in 2014. Fortunately, there was no property damage and everyone was happy.

The Town’s Committee of the Whole on 26 October 2020 will be considering a staff report on construction vibration and what can be done to protect residents from rogue organisations such as the York Catholic District School Board and their agents who cause damage and walk away. 

The Town already monitors the impact of construction vibration when new housing developments, for example, are going ahead. But nothing comparable happens when school car parks or shopping plazas are excavated and reconstructed before the asphalt goes down.

Vibration complaints

It is perfectly clear from the staff report that the overwhelming majority of complaints about construction vibration come from new developments where planning approvals are required. Unlike new housing, the reconstruction of a school car park does not require prior planning approval.

The staff report looks at practice in other York Region municipalities and in Toronto which was a pioneer in bringing in a Vibration Control By-law in 2008. But we are told this is primarily for construction and demolition: 

“and does not address vibration impacts from non-Planning Act development (e.g. driveway or parking lot paving)”

We are told that By-law enforcement officers in King and Vaughan regard structural damage caused by construction vibration to be:

“a civil matter and recourse for damage is pursued by (the) private landowner against the other property owner.”

But without a pre-condition survey how can the aggrieved property owner prove the damage was caused by the contractor?

Amending the Noise By-law

The report recommends amending the Town’s Noise By-law 2017-76 to include vibration. Complaints would be logged by the homeowners and followed up by Property Standards Officers. But what if the earth-shattering vibration and the resulting property damage occurs over a very short period as was the case with us in Harrison Drive? The Town needs to be proactive rather than reactive.

The report says that under this option (amending the Noise By-law):

“Council would also have an opportunity to increase regulations specifically pertaining to vibration. This could include by-law provisions which require vibration to be monitored on large sites that employ construction methods which can result in vibrations being transmitted to neighbouring properties. Other vibration-producing activities (e.g. pile driving) on smaller residential sites could also be clearly established within the regulations of the by-law.”

This hits the nail on the head.

This is the kind of heavy-duty construction work that should be captured by a vibration by-law

The only argument for delaying its implementation is that this kind of vibration damage doesn’t happen very often and there’s no need to wield a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

I understand the argument.

But, then again, until our homes where shaken to their foundations in August 2018, I never for one moment believed the York District Catholic School Board would walk away from the damage they and their contractor caused.

I hope the by-law, as recommended by staff, gets support and is brought in before the next school car park is dug up and reconstructed by Joe Peluso.

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Note 1: My deputation to the Committee of the Whole on 18 March 2019, setting out the sequence of events, is here starting at 1hour and 6 minutes in. The following day I wrote to councillors: 

“In my deputation yesterday afternoon I mentioned that I contacted the Town Clerk on 7 September 2018 about the construction vibration at the Canadian Martyrs but, for whatever reason, the report before you only focussed on new-build. I should have said - but didn’t - that Ms Lyons immediately passed my comments on to the Directors of Planning and Engineering. I may have inadvertently given the impression that the Town Clerk sat on her hands when that was certainly not the case.”

Note 2: The video of the debate at the Committee of the Whole on Monday 26 October 2020 is here (2 hours and 46 minutes in). The staff report on Construction Vibration is here.

Note 3: The Committee of the Whole agenda for 26 October 2020 also contained this correspondence from Stuart Hoffman which specifically addresses the issue of pre-condition surveys. 

This Thursday (22 October 2020) Newmarket Mayor John Taylor will tell York Regional Council that it is time to have a Regional Chair that is directly elected by the voters. Ever since the Region was established the Chair has been indirectly elected by members of the Council. It is a throwback to a different age. 

Years ago, former Newmarket Aurora MPP Chris Ballard introduced a Private Members’ Bill which would force the direct election of the chair of York Region. But, like so many other PMBs, it failed to get onto the Statute Book.

On 2 March 2016 I gave evidence to the Bill Committee (along with former Newmarket Mayoral candidate Chris Campbell and Newmarket councillor Christina Bisanz) and the points we made then are still valid today. I told Committee members:

“(York Region’s) population is bigger than PEI, Newfoundland, Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, and it’s rapidly closing on Manitoba. Yet the person who leads York region is indirectly elected by 20 people.”

When Ballard's Private Members' Bill didn't pass into law (and very few PMBs do) it was picked up by Kathleen Wynne's Liberal Government and rolled into an omnibus Public Bill which guaranteed it would pass. The incoming PC Government under Doug Ford then scrapped the elections for regional chairs at the same time he cut the size of Toronto City Council by half.

Popular Mandate

Taylor has a long record supporting direct election. Indeed, when he stood for Regional Chair in 2014 – predicting he would lose – the contest drew attention to the inherent absurdity of having an indirectly elected chair with no popular mandate.

The Regional Chair for the last six years, Wayne Emmerson, is jovial and knows how to run a meeting. (Photo right) But he admits he would never win an election at large.

Van Bynen against direct election

Newmarket-Aurora’s Liberal MP, Tony Van Bynen, deeply conservative in so many ways, always set his face against direct election when he served on the Regional Council as the mute Mayor of Newmarket. Scandalously, he disregarded the 7-1 vote on Newmarket Council in favour of direct election and cast his vote for the status quo when the Region voted on the issue.

Emmerson - whose remuneration package is lavish - has grown more imperial with the passage of time. In March last year he felt obliged to apologise to Regional Councillors Jack Heath and Joe Li for being unnecessarily brusque with them, giving them a dressing down in public.

On Thursday Joe Li will be seconding Taylor’s motion.

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Updated on 21 October 2020 to include a new fourth paragraph explaining how Ballard's Bill was picked up by the Government and became law.

The following motion was deferred from the Regional Council meeting of February 27, 2020 to the meeting on 22 October 2020. To be moved by Mayor Taylor, seconded by Regional Councillor Li:

    • That the Regional Chair be directly elected by an at large election.

Note: In 2018 the Ford Government decided to scrap the elections for Regional Chairs which the previous Liberal Government had mandated. Emmerson had decided not to run in the election for Regional Chair but changed his mind after Ford's announcement.

Update on 22 October 2020: At the Council Meeting today Taylor moved the motion that the Regional Chair be directly elected. He did not speak to his motion and there was no debate. In favour of direct election: 6. Against direct election 14.

In favour of a directly elected Regional Chair: Regional Councillor Don Hamilton (Markham), Regional Councillor Jim Jones (Markham), Regional Councillor Joe Li (Markham), Mayor Tom Mrakas (Aurora), Mayor John Taylor (Newmarket), Regional Councillor Joe DiPaola (Richmond Hill)

Against a directly elected Regional Chair: Regional Councillor Jack Heath (Markham), Regional Councillor Linda Jackson (Vaughan), Mayor Iain Lovatt (Whitchurch-Stouffville), Mayor Steve Pellegrini (King), Regional Councillor Carmine Perrelli (Richmond Hill), Mayor Margaret Quirk (Georgina), Regional Councillor Gino Rosati (Vaughan), Mayor Frank Scarpitti (Markham), Mayor David Barrow (Richmond Hill), Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua (Vaughan), Regional Chair Wayne Emmerson, Regional Councillor Mario Ferri (Vaughan), Regional Councillor Robert Grossi (Georgina), Mayor Virginia Hackson (East Gwillimbury). 

 

One year ago to the day the developer Bob Forrest ordered the unlawful demolition of the Simpson Building in the heart of the old downtown. It was once the apothecary of Ontario’s first female pharmacist, Anne Mary Simpson. We lost a priceless part of Newmarket’s history. 

Earlier this year, the University of Waterloo’s Dan Schneider asked me to post a guest piece on his heritage blog and this is my take on what happened.

Unfortunately, there is no official report from the Town setting out the sequence of events, explaining what happened on 9 October 2019 and why.

The Town struck a deal with Forrest allowing him to admit that the building was taken down without permission. There would be no prosecution. In return, Forrest promised to rebuild the Simpson Building and restore the adjacent commercial buildings he owned.

It was a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Most of the work has now been completed and the buildings look good. (Photo right taken in late September 2020)

Forrest has been trying to sell his properties on Main Street South for many months now, so far without success. But these are difficult times.

He could, of course, lower the asking price and still walk away with millions.

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Back Story: Southlake Regional Health Centre is a big 525 bed teaching hospital in Newmarket with a wide catchment area. It has almost 3,500 employees and 580 physicians. The hospital is funded primarily by the Province. It is operating with a deficit of over $17M which the Hospital Treasurer describes as "not sustainable". Last week Southlake said it would be eliminating 97 Registered Nurse positions. Is it all about saving money? Or is it about moving more health care out of the hospital and into the community?

COVID is back

Today Doug Ford tells us the second wave of Covid 19 is here and it will be worse than the first. 

This comes hot on the heels of yesterday's news that the Province would be investing $52.5m to recruit, retain and support more health care workers. 

So what should we make of last week’s extraordinary announcement from Southlake that the hospital intends to cut 97 registered nurse positions because of “significant financial pressures”?

Good grief! We are in the middle of a pandemic.

All hands on deck!

At times like this it’s all hands on deck. We shouldn’t be throwing registered nurses overboard – whatever the reason.

Southlake’s Treasurer, Steve Hills, warned the hospital’s AGM on 17 June 2020:

The current financial position is not sustainable.” 

He was reporting an eye-watering deficit of $17,679,000 in the financial year to 31 March 2020 - compared with a modest surplus of $157,000 the year before. He says:

“Increasing demand for services as well as replacement of critical hospital infrastructure continue to place significant pressures on the physical and financial capacity of the organization, and it shows no sign of abating in 2020/21.” 

The costs of COVID

He says Covid had a limited impact on the 2019/20 results (costing about $1.9m) but this will clearly change in 2020-21. The Board wants “additional base hospital funding” which means money from the Province which provides the lion's share of hospital funding.

The Minister of Health, Christine Elliott, who happens to be Newmarket-Aurora's MPP, has not specifically commented on the planned elimination of 97 registered nurse jobs but her Ministry was not so shy:

"Southlake received a funding increase of over $5 million this year to expand frontline services for the people of York Region. Hospitals are in charge of their own operations and operational decision-making. That said, when making planning decisions, we expect all hospitals to minimize impacts on frontline care."

$5M is a drop in the bucket.

"A ridiculous assertion"

However, on 24 September at Queen's Park, Liberal MPP Michael Coteau challenged Elliott about the planned Southlake job cuts:

"Earlier this week, we found out that 100 public sector nurses were laid off in the Minister of Health’s own riding. How could the government lay off nurses when we have a crisis in long-term care; we have a crisis in public education, where cases are increasing; we have a crisis in testing, where we’re seeing people wait days to get tests and in lines for eight hours? How can they actually push privatization and fire nurses during this pandemic?"

Coteau wants the Government to confirm:

"That not one single health care worker will be fired during the pandemic".

Elliott tells him:

"That is an absolutely ridiculous assertion. That is absolutely incorrect. We believe in our public health care system. That is what we’re trying to transform."

In fact, Southlake expects the 97 nursing posts to disappear through attrition and natural wastage. The hospital says it hopes to avoid

 “any frontline involuntary employment loss”

Swapping registered nurses for registered practical nurses

Southlake has already cut 24 clerical and administrative positions which could impact front line care. I don't know. 

The hospital stresses that despite the deep cuts in registered nursing posts it is still recruiting. They will be adding:

"49 registered practical nurse positions, 29 patient services partner positions* and three social worker positions".

These are all valuable jobs. But, clearly, Southlake is not replacing like with like.

The Ontario Nurses Association condemned the move. They've had run-ins with the hospital for years over staffing issues. Most recently in 2017 after complaints about working practices in the Emergency Department.

With everything that is now happening it beggars belief that Southlake is pressing ahead, getting rid of Registered Nurses, when the organisation is overstretched and working over-capacity. Just when you think more nurses would be needed.

Hip and Knee replacements pushed back 7 years

Southlake’s Chief Executive, Arden Krystal, told the House of Commons Health Committee on 10 June 2020:

"I want to talk about hospital capacity. There's no doubt that hospitals across Canada, and it doesn't matter which province you're in, have been operating at over 100% capacity even well before COVID-19. Further to the comments by my radiologist colleagues, one of the challenges with working over capacity is the only way you can recoup capacity to deal with a pandemic like this is to cancel elective procedures. 

Our hospital went down to 30% of our normal volume. We've modelled that for hip and knee replacements alone it could take us seven years to recoup the number of surgeries we would need to do if we don't work evenings, weekends and everything else. Of course, the problem with that is human resources. As one of my other colleagues mentioned, they are pretty burned out. To try to get them to work those extra hours, even if we were funded for it, would be very difficult. Once again, we need to rethink our hospital sector."

It does sound kinda counter-intuitive to complain about over-capacity and staff burn out in one breath and then to cut registered nursing positions in the next.

Southlake has been running at over capacity for years. The way to tackle this says Health Minister Christine Elliott is to stop people turning up in hospital for conditions which can be treated elsewhere. The answer was to be found in "better connected care".

Hallway medicine

The Ford Government wants to “end hallway medicine” by ensuring greater co-ordination between all health providers – in and out of hospital. And new "Health Teams" are being set up across the Province. Southlake was in the first wave in November 2019 which was:

“approved after an extensive readiness assessment process, which involved significant time, collaboration, research and effort from partners across the health care sector.”

Southlake's Strategic Plan which looks forward to 2023 was written before COVID and its Master Plan delivered to the Province in February this year. That seems a lifetime ago.

But with the arrival of the coronavirus and the melt-down in long term care everything has gone pear-shaped.

Without additional cash the hospital itself could be on life-support.

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Note 1: Newmarket-Aurora's Liberal MP, Tony Van Bynen, who sits on the Commons Health Committee and was on the Board of the charitable Southlake Foundation (which raises money for the hospital) has not expressed a view on the loss of 97 registered nurse positions.

Note 2: The Ontario Hospital Association makes the case here for additional funding.

Note 3: *Southlake describes a Patient Services Partner (PSP) as someone "responsible for the provision of patient care to a specific group of patients under the supervision of Regulated Health Care Professionals (RHP) and in accordance with the policies and procedures of the Southlake Regional Health Centre (SRHC). PSPs are primarily required to perform tasks for patients that are focused on activities of daily living (ADL) including mobility and feeding." 

Updated on 30 September 2020 to include the Queen's Park exchange between Liberal MPP Michael Coteau and Health Minister Christine Elliott. To see the full exchange click "Read more" below the graphic.

Update on 8 October 2020: From Newmarket Today: Southlake CEO answers questions on nurse lay-offs, defdicits and the future