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Ford shuffles cabinet, Rod Phillips replacing Merrilee Fullerton as long-term care minister

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is shuffling his cabinet, with former finance minister Rod Phillips — who resigned from his post following a Caribbean vacation during the COVID-19 pandemic — returning as the new minister of long-term care.

Large-scale shuffle comes a little under a year before next provincial election

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, right, and Finance Minister Rod Phillips trade places at the microphone during an announcement in Ajax, Ont., on July 28, 2020. Phillips is returning to cabinet as the minister of long-term care. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is shuffling his cabinet, with former finance minister Rod Phillips — who resigned from his post following a Caribbean vacation during the COVID-19 pandemic — returning as the new minister of long-term care.

Phillips will replace Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, who will now serve as the minister of children, community and social services. The move is part of a large-scale shuffle, which comes with just under a year to go before the next provincial election.

In a statement, Ford said the province is turning the corner on the worst of the pandemic.

"As we continue our work to rebuild and support Ontario's health system, our renewed team is well positioned to deliver on the priorities that matter to Ontarians, including getting more people back to work, making life more affordable, supporting businesses and job creators and building transit infrastructure," Ford said.

The Opposition NDP slammed Phillips's return to cabinet even before it was announced, with ethics and accountability critic Taras Natyshak saying in a statement that Ford kept Phillips "near and dear to him even after his elaborate St. Barts vacation coverup.

"Phillips jetted off to luxurious St. Barts, covering up his tracks as he went with pre-written messages, pre-recorded Christmas greetings, and a fake Zoom background, while the rest of Ontario hunkered down and followed public health advice to stay home over the holidays," Natyshak said.

Phillips apologized late last year for leaving the country on Dec. 13 for a personal trip even as health officials pleaded with Ontarians to only venture outside of their homes for essential purposes. Phillips's office also previously told CBC News that the minister had taken a trip to Switzerland last August.

'The wrong decision'

Days after he had departed on his trip, Phillips's office posted a series of tweets for the minister that seemed to give the impression he was home for the holidays.

The posts included a video of Phillips sitting next to a fireplace, thanking Ontarians for protecting the most vulnerable, and a previously taken photo of him holding local maple syrup to celebrate National Maple Syrup Day. 

At the time of his resignation, Phillips said that travelling over the holidays was "the wrong decision," and that he offered an "unreserved apology."

Speaking to the CBC Toronto about his new appointment, Phillips acknowledged he "made a mistake" when he took his St. Barts vacation, but added he is happy to take on his new role as long-term care minister.

"I took accountability for the mistake and stepped down," he said. "Now the premier's asked me to step up again."

When asked about his experience and qualifications for the role, Phillips said his work as CEO of Shepell-fgi — a company that provides employee assistance programs — was relevant health-care experience.

He also said he was "one of the people who was engineering" the long-term care aspects of the most recent Ontario budget.

Fullerton's time as minister of long-term care wasn't without controversy either. She was heavily criticized for the havoc COVID-19 wrought on the province's long-term care facilities, as 3,794 nursing home residents died from the virus and thousands more were infected.

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk and the Ontario Long-term Care COVID-19 Commission both released reports on the sector this spring, which found the ministry was not prepared for a pandemic, in part due to years of inaction to prevent a crisis.

In turn, the Opposition had called for Fullerton's resignation.

"It was a tragedy what happened in our long term care homes," Phillips told CBC News. "This is a problem that evolved over many, many years in successive governments, but we're here to fix it."

Dr. Merrilee Fullerton will now serve as the minister of children, community and social services. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Election next June

With just under a year to go before next June's provincial election, the shuffle appears to move out veteran MPPs from more rural ridings that should be safe PC seats and gives junior cabinet posts to MPPs from urban and suburban ridings who may be more electorally vulnerable.

Five ministers were moved out of cabinet, including former environment minister Jeff Yurek, and former infrastructure minister Laurie Scott.

Several younger caucus members, meanwhile, were promoted to more prominent portfolios.

David Piccini becomes minister of environment and Kinga Surma takes on the infrastructure file. Parm Gill takes on the new portfolio of citizenship and multiculturalism, the first minister to head up the role.

Prabmeet Singh Sarkaria is the new president of the treasury board, which has been split from the finance file, while Lisa Thompson replaces Ernie Hardeman in agriculture, food and rural affairs.

Health Minister Christine Elliott, Education Minister Stephen Lecce, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, Attorney General Doug Downey and Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy remain in their prominent positions. Bethlenfalvy is also taking over the province's digital government strategy.

Though many cabinet positions changed hands Friday, Stephen Lecce is staying on as education minister. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In a statement, Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario President Sam Hammond denounced Lecce staying on as education minister.

"The Premier and Minister Lecce have a long history of ignoring and disrespecting education partners," Hammond said. "The disregard is intentional and it has, unfortunately, resulted in critical failures that continue to negatively affect students, educators and other education workers across Ontario — failures we cannot ignore."

Several newcomers 

Meanwhile, John Yakabuski is out as minister of natural resources, as that file goes to Greg Rickford, who is taking on a merged file as minister of northern development, mining, natural resources and forestry, as well as Indigenous affairs.

Todd Smith becomes minister of energy, which has split from Rickford's former portfolio.

Jill Dunlop, a former associate minister, becomes minister of colleges and universities, as Ross Romano moves to government and consumer services.

Several newcomers are also taking on associate minister files, with Stan Cho in transportation and Jane McKenna in children and women's issues.

Nina Tangri becomes associate minister of small business and red tape, while Kaleed Rasheed becomes associate minister of digital government.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Carter

Reporter

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

With files from the Canadian Press and Jessica Ng

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