Ontario's major political party leaders sparred over the province's past and future in a prime-time debate Monday, with health care, education, affordability and climate change sparking tense exchanges.
One of the sharpest criticisms levelled at Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford came from Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, who attacked Bill 124 and said the province's nurses are "overworked, underpaid and disrespected by their government."
Bill 124 was passed in 2019 and limits public sector wage increases to one per cent of total salary for three years. It is estimated that the salaries of more than one million people are affected by the law. The bill has faced fierce opposition from public sector unions and came under particular scrutiny during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the wages of many front-line health workers were limited by its parameters.
"Mr. Ford, have you talked to a nurse lately?" Schreiner asked. "Have you talked to a nurse about how ... insulted they feel being called heroes and then essentially having their wages cut by having them frozen? Mr. Ford, if you want to build capacity in our system you have to invest in the people that deliver our care."
New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath also went after Ford on Bill 124.
"We need to respect those health-care workers who we call heroes and then treat like dirt," she said.
The NDP, Greens and Liberals have all promised to repeal the legislation if they form government.
WATCH | Rivals hit out at Ford over testy relationship with nurses:
Ford defended his government's wider record on health care, saying that when he took office in 2018 the system "was on the brink.
"Our hospitals were crumbling for decades due to lack of investment," he said. Ford pointed to the $40 billion his government earmarked for capital spending on hospitals and health services in its pre-election 2022 budget.
"Every region in this province is getting a new hospital ... 50 projects right across every single region," he said.
Ford also said the Progressive Conservatives would fund nurses' tuition fees if they work in an underserved area, and noted that his government gave personal support workers a $3-an-hour raise and are giving nurses a $5,000 retention pay bonus.
Ford also defended his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while acknowledging that his government didn't always get everything right.
"Every decision I made was with the best intention, with the best medical advice I could get at the time," he said, before responding directly to Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, who earlier accused the PCs of leaving Ontarians to fend for themselves during the pandemic.
"Mr. Del Duca, for 2½ years, literally 24/7, I was working on this pandemic. It's easy to sit back from the sidelines, when you didn't have to make the tough decisions that I had to make, and criticize. You have the easiest job. You just sit there and criticize."
Del Duca shot back: "Mr. Ford, respectfully, this is the job you signed up for four years ago.... You ran for the job."
WATCH | Ford defends Ontario's response to COVID-19:
Leaders attack PC record on public education
The leaders then had an opportunity to lay out their visions for Ontario's public education system.
Schreiner harkened back to the first year of Ford's premiership, when the government faced criticism for a plan to increase class sizes and implement mandatory online learning. He also went after the Liberal record on education, saying the last Liberal government closed 227 schools, many in rural communities, while the school repair backlog increased by billions of dollars.
For his part, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said Conservatives want to privatize education in Ontario and called Ford's record on the file "appalling."
"Doug Ford does not value public education. I do," Del Duca said. He said that a Liberal government would divert the $10 billion from cancelling the proposed Highway 413 to build and repair schools while hiring 10,000 new teachers in the coming years.
"Your record on public education is an embarrassment and you should be ashamed of yourself," Del Duca said. "You, sir, have failed this province."
WATCH | Horwath hits at Ford over changes to class sizes:
The New Democrat leader also largely focused on Ford's record.
"One of the things that Mr. Ford refuses to acknowledge is the cuts and the chaos he brought to our public education system," Horwath said. "Your cuts and your chaos destabilized our education system. Ask any parent and they'll tell you the same thing. You can't cut toward a better education system. You just can't."
Meanwhile, Ford said his government spent record amounts on public education during the COVID-19 pandemic and pointed to $14 billion for school infrastructure included in the 2022 pre-election budget. He also made the case his party has the best plan for helping students prepare for jobs of the future.
Ford also specifically responded specifically to Del Duca.
"You want to talk about embarrassment? You destroyed this province in every area," Ford said, alluding to Del Duca's time as a cabinet minister in the government of former premier Kathleen Wynne.
WATCH | Ford defends education record, says Ontario had 'the best education minister':
Heated exchanges over Highway 413
All three of Ford's rivals went after his plan to build Highway 413, which would run for some 60 kilometres across the northwestern part of the GTA.
Schreiner called the proposed highway a "climate disaster" that would only benefit wealthy land developers and destroy environmentally sensitive farmland. He said Ford's commitment to the project is an example of him catering to big business interests.
"He will roll out the red carpet for the Amazons and big-box stores of the world. But when it comes to supporting local farmers, he will pave over their farmland, hurting our economy," Schreiner said.
Horwath said the highway would only lead to "mansions that nobody can afford."
Ford responded by saying that traffic gridlock is costing Ontario tens of millions in lost production every year and that the proposed project, estimated to cost roughly $10 billion, has support from commuters in the 905. He also highlighted recent endorsements the PCs have secured from several large construction unions.'
"If it was up to the three of you," Ford said to the other leaders, "you wouldn't build nothing."
He said that the highway would save commuters time on their daily trips. Just how much is a matter of disagreement among the parties — the PCs say it would amount to 30 minutes both ways for an average driver, while the Liberals point to a 2017 report that found it would be about 30 seconds each way.
Ford's record on climate change comes under scrutiny
Asked if he thinks his government has done enough to combat climate change, Ford pointed to his party's plan to make Ontario an electric vehicle manufacturing hub. He also highlighted his proposed Critical Minerals Strategy to develop mineral deposits key in the supply chain for electric vehicle batteries.
In contrast, the other leaders underscored that Ford scrapped renewable energy contracts signed by the last Liberal government, at a cost of about $230 million, and eliminated electric vehicle purchasing incentives.
"This is a premier that basically had a tantrum and tore out EV charging stations when he first took office. He tore up green energy contracts when he took office. Now he's seen the light, perhaps. Somehow I doubt it," Horwath said.
Schreiner accused Ford of "systematically dismantling environmental protections" and said that he wants to build EVs "but he doesn't want the average person to be able to afford them."
WATCH | Ford's government 'dismantled' environmental protections, Schreiner argues:
Affordability top of mind for campaigns
The first topic covered during the debate was affordability, which has emerged as the number one issue on the campaign trail.
Ford said the PCs have helped pocketbooks by scrapping licence plate renewal fees, eliminating tolls on highways 412 and 418 and a promise to cut the gas tax by 5.7 cents per litre for six months on July 1.
WATCH | 'People need a wage you can pay the bills on,' says Horwath of Bill 124:
He then said that his opponents would bring back licence plate fees and increase highway tolls, which led to a chippy exchange with Del Duca.
"There's an old saying in life: 'You're entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts,' Mr. Ford," Del Duca said.
Ford then said the last Liberal government was destroying the province's finances before the PCs were voted in.
"The economy was going downhill faster than the Canadian bobsled team," he said.
WATCH | 'People are hurting,' Del Duca argues during exchange with Doug Ford:
Given a chance to speak, Schreiner said there isn't enough focus on how the affordability crisis is affecting vulnerable Ontarians, like those who rely on the Ontario Disability Support Program, many of whom he said are "living in legislated poverty."
Schreiner touted his party's promise to double ODSP rates if it were to form government.
Meanwhile, Horwath said an NDP government would reintroduce rent controls and increase the minimum wage by $1 each year, up to $20 by 2026.
"People need a wage that you can pay the bills on," Horwath said.
PCs leading in the polls
Monday's debate was the last time all four leaders meet before the June 2 vote.
Ford and his PCs headed into Monday's debate with a comfortable lead in the polls, according to the CBC News Ontario Poll Tracker. Both the NDP and Liberals have tried to position themselves as the only party capable of toppling Ford, while the Greens are looking to grow from a caucus of one.
It's often said among political insiders that the leaders' debate marks the beginning of the "real campaign," when more voters start paying close attention and making decisions about how to cast their ballots.
The four leaders met last week for a debate on issues affecting northern communities. It was punctuated by fiery exchanges about the leaders' political history, their visions for Ontario's future and Ford's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With files from The Canadian Press