Toronto·Analysis

As protests spread and other provinces lift restrictions, Ontario's Doug Ford stays the course

Even before any truckers started their engines to join the Ottawa-bound convoy against COVID-19 restrictions, Ontario Premier Doug Ford laid out a timeline for easing the province’s public health measures. But since then, the political situation has changed, much more so than the pandemic situation. 

Provincial government considering slightly quicker timeline for easing COVID-19 capacity limits, sources say

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, and Health Minister Christine Elliott arrive at a news conference about the provincial reopening plan on May 20, 2021. In the three weeks since Ontario's latest reopening timeline was announced, protests in Ottawa mean the political situation has changed, much more so than the pandemic situation. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Even before any truckers started their engines to join the Ottawa-bound convoy against COVID-19 restrictions, Ontario Premier Doug Ford laid out a timeline for easing the latest round of the province's public health measures. 

In the three weeks since that timeline was announced, the political situation has changed, much more so than the pandemic situation. 

None of this has prompted Ford to change his plans for reopening Ontario — at least not yet. 

Multiple sources close to the government tell CBC News that the Ministry of Health is preparing options for cabinet to speed up the timeline of ending existing capacity limits in indoor spaces. 

A protester taking part in a demonstration against COVID-19 restrictions walks in front of a sign that reads 'Freedom' on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Tuesday. There are growing calls for Ford to get more involved in bringing the protests to an end in Ontario. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Ford likely to 'stick to the plan,' adviser says

Under the current timeline, Ontario is due to take its next step on Feb. 21, by lifting all capacity limits in restaurants, bars, cinemas and gyms, and allowing large spectator venues to increase attendance to 50 per cent of capacity. The remaining capacity restrictions are due to lift three weeks later, on March 14. 

The sources did not provide any proposed new dates for easing restrictions, but one of Ford's senior political advisers said any changes to the timeline would not be dramatic. 

"People like it when you have a plan and when you stick to the plan," the adviser said. "I don't see any upside to going in a different direction." 

That's why you won't see Ford follow Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's lead and announce an immediate dropping of restrictions or a quick end to Ontario's indoor mask mandates and proof of vaccination requirements.

WATCH | Ontario sticking to a cautious path toward loosening public health restrictions: 

Ontario not dropping vaccine passport or masking for now, says minister

5 months ago
Duration 1:26
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott says the province is sticking to a cautious path toward loosening public health restrictions because of the spread of highly transmissible coronavirus variants.

"We have no plans currently to drop the [vaccine] passport situation or masking. We believe that masking is going to be important for some time to come," Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott told a news conference Wednesday. 

Which brings us back to the trucker-led protests, since their many demands include ending all vaccine mandates and mask mandates, most of which fall under provincial jurisdiction. 

Protests a political hot potato

There are growing calls for Ford to get more involved in bringing the protests to an end. After all, Ottawa and Windsor are in Ontario. 

"I call on the government of Ontario to join us in securing an end to these illegal blockades in several Ontario cities and to apply the law," Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told a news conference Wednesday.

Police officers patrol downtown Ottawa Tuesday during the ongoing protests against COVID-19 restrictions. Ford expressed confidence Wednesday that police would take 'appropriate steps to address the evolving situations in our cities and bring them to an end.' (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

On Wednesday night, Ford spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the protests, which Ford has called occupations. Yet conversations with Ford's team suggest they've been reluctant to engage with the protesters or toss Trudeau a political lifeline.

Ford and his top advisers "want to leave this to be Trudeau's problem," a source close to the premier's office told CBC. That echoes language from Candice Bergen, now interim leader of the federal Conservative Party. 

An argument could be made that the protest is actually Trudeau's problem. 

The protesters don't appear to care who has the jurisdiction to end vaccine passport programs and mask rules. Many of them don't even come from Ontario. If Doug Ford lifted every single COVID-19 restriction in Ontario tomorrow, would the protesters pack up and leave?

Their anger is pretty much laser focused on the prime minister. What's going on in Ottawa is as much an anti-Trudeau-government protest as it is an anti-vaccine-mandate protest. After all, convoy organizers proposed ousting his elected government. 

Trudeau has clearly picked a side in regards to the protesters, calling them a fringe minority. Ford has not. While he is saying they should end their protests, he has not taken a firm stance on their demands. 

A protester moves a sign Sunday at a parking area for truckers at RCGT Baseball Park in Ottawa, as a protest against COVID-19 restrictions continues into its second week. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

A senior Ford government official questions whether the premier speaking out against the protesters' demands would accomplish anything other than inflame the situation. 

"To bring the protests to an end, it goes back to the police enforcing the law. There's only so much any politician can do," the official said Thursday. "The political solution is to give [the protesters] what they want. We're not going to do that."

The official said lines of communication are open between the Ford and Trudeau governments, and both are prepared to provide police with any support they request to help end the blockades.

Border protest turns up heat on Ford

The potential economic damage to Ontario from the traffic jam at the Windsor-Detroit border crossing could ramp up the pressure on Ford.

"The ongoing illegal occupation and blockade happening in Ontario must stop. The Ambassador Bridge is one of the most vital trade corridors in our country," Ford said in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, on the third day of the protest at the border.

"I remain confident that our police forces in Ontario, along with Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Canadian Border Services Agency, will take the appropriate steps to address the evolving situations in our cities and bring them to an end." 

Semi-trailer trucks line up in the northbound lane of I-75 in Detroit as protesters on the Canadian side blocked the entrance to the Ambassador Bridge Tuesday. Ongoing border protests may increase the pressure on Ford to act. (Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press via The Associated Press)

That doesn't sound like Ford is about to give the truckers his cell number (something he is fond of doing with many voters) to try to talk them out of their tactics. 

There's pressure on Ford from multiple fronts: 

  • pressure to respond to the broader public's genuine fatigue with COVID-19 measures; 
  • pressure not to be seen as capitulating to the demands of protesters, whose tactics are largely unpopular
  • pressure not to lift public health measures so quickly that it brings another big wave of infections. 

"We want it done in a logical, methodical way," the senior adviser to Ford told me. "We want it open, but we want it to stay open."

Lifting restrictions a matter of timing

While there is a timetable for lifting capacity restrictions in indoor spaces, Ontario does not yet have a timetable for ending its proof of vaccination system or its province-wide mask mandate. 

Neither will stay in place forever, so the question becomes one of timing. From the political standpoint, the more specific questions are: will they be lifted before Ontario's election on June 2, and what will happen with the infection rate as a result? 

Almost exactly a year ago, Ford announced plans for lifting Ontario's stay-at-home order and phasing out restrictions.  Within weeks, a new wave of COVID-19 was building, Ford was forced to announce a new round of closures, and the death toll kept rising. 

As much as Ford and his PCs want to lift the mask mandate and vaccine passport, the absolute last thing they'd want would be yet another pandemic wave to hit Ontario this April, bringing hospitalizations and deaths in May, just as they're on the campaign trail trying to persuade voters to re-elect them. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Crawley

Provincial affairs reporter

Mike Crawley is a senior reporter for CBC News, covering provincial affairs in Ontario. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C. He was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.

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