Toronto

Ford says COVID-19 back-to-school ad campaign will continue despite criticism

An Ontario government advertising blitz touting the province's back to school plan will continue, Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday amid opposition calls to redirect the campaign costs toward keeping students safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Government says ads were approved by Ontario's auditor general

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, and Education Minister Stephen Lecce stressed that the province's auditor general approved the ads before they were sent out for publication. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

An Ontario government advertising blitz touting the province's back to school plan will continue, Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday amid opposition calls to redirect the campaign costs toward keeping students safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Imagine if we didn't have any ads and nobody knew what was going on? That would be terrible," Ford said at his daily COVID-19 briefing Tuesday afternoon in Etobicoke, where he also announced a new Catholic school for the area.

Ford slammed the opposition legislators who have criticized the newly released radio, online and print ads, accusing them of "playing politics".

He did not say how much the ad campaign is expected to cost, but said it was necessary to keep parents informed about the school reopening plans.

"We inform the people, we inform the parents," Ford said of the campaign. "I think it's a no brainer ... Running ads is the right thing to do, we're going to continue running ads."

An example of the government's ads that will run on social media before the start of the school year in September. (Government of Ontario)

The campaign features messages touting the government's efforts to consult with health and education professionals to create their strategy.

The ads also detail some of the measures included in the plan and promote a government website with more information.

The campaign comes at a time when the government is being criticized for its plan by school boards, teachers' unions and some parents for failing to cut elementary class sizes.

The government has been called on to spend more money on the school reopening instead of allowing school boards to dip into their own reserves to hire more teachers and lease space to encourage physical distancing.

Ontario's auditor general, who under the previous Liberal government had the power to reject ads if she considered them partisan, said this campaign would have been considered acceptable under those old standards.

The Liberals later largely removed the auditor's approval powers over government advertising, something the Ford government promised to restore during the 2018 election but has yet to reinstate.

Ford said on Tuesday that the back-to-school ads are part of a larger COVID-19 advertising campaign whose costs will be publicly disclosed in the government's year-end financial statements.

"Everything is going to be transparent," Ford said.

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While on the defensive about spending money on advertising during COVID-19, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the province is doing so well handling the crisis it's 'staggering.' 1:08

All of the province's main opposition parties said Tuesday that Ford should be spending the money to hire more teachers and increase physical distancing in schools.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath slammed the advertising buy, calling it a "partisan defensive" strategy from a government under pressure.

"I don't know how Mr. Ford thinks he can advertise his way out of this," she said. "But it's certainly a shameful lack of priorities. The priorities should be making our kids safe, not advertising."

Liberal Leader Stephen Del Duca described the advertisements as "propaganda" and said Ford must publicly disclose the cost to taxpayers.

"The buck stops with Ford," he said in a statement. "Take action now and spend money to protect our students, their parents and education workers, not political ads."

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said communication with the public is necessary, but the government's ads are not clear.

"If the Premier is serious about providing comfort to parents, he should immediately redirect spending taxpayer money on vague ads and instead give it directly to School Boards who need it," he said in a statement.

With files from CBC News

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