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Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews photographed in her office on Feb. 8, 2012. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews photographed in her office on Feb. 8, 2012. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

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Poised under fire, Deb Matthews tackles Ontario's ailing health-care system Add to ...

On Valentine’s Day, Deb Matthews was shaking hands with people who owe their lives to heart transplants. She moved about the room in her Hillary Clinton pantsuit and campaigner’s flats, listening to each survivor’s story with the intensity of Oprah pulling a confession out of a celebrity: one, a young mother of two with a hint of a scar poking out of her V-neck top; another, a man wearing a green sweatshirt emblazoned with the slogan “Don’t take your organs to Heaven, Heaven knows we need them here.”

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During those 30 minutes at Toronto General Hospital, few in the room could sense the kind of week this was going to be for the smiling Ms. Matthews, Ontario’s Health Minister.

She knew that the following afternoon, economist Don Drummond would drop a highly anticipated report on the dire state of the province’s finances. There were 362 recommendations – and more than 100 of them were aimed at dramatically reshaping her portfolio, which accounts for 40 per cent of Ontario’s deficit-addled budget.

She likely knew that the day after that, Thursday, she would have to call in the police to investigate a mushrooming scandal at Ornge – the air-ambulance service that, under her watch, has sparked the first major criminal probe of a provincial agency in Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government.

And she may have even known then – as she spent time with a few of the individuals who depend on the system to keep themselves and their loved ones healthy – that she would stand before the microphones on Friday to announce the dismantling of the air-ambulance service as we know it.

Ms. Matthews shows poise under fire. And that’s a requirement when your job is to oversee surgery on the health-care system.

It’s the “toughest assignment in the country,” health-care analyst Michael Decter said.

And she asked for it.

From protest to Parliament

When Mr. McGuinty was re-elected for his third consecutive term last fall , this time with a minority, Ms. Matthews asked if she could keep the health portfolio because she didn’t want to lose the “momentum” she had created.

She did this despite the monumental task of reforming Ontario’s health-care system, one of the most recalcitrant systems for any minister – federal or provincial – to tackle. She also knew that the scandal at Ornge could engulf her ministry. Controversy, in fact, is what propelled her into the health portfolio in the first place. The tendering scandal at eHealth derailed her predecessor, David Caplan, who was forced to resign in 2008, even though he had inherited the mess from his predecessor, George Smitherman.

“This is a time of real transformation,” she explained in an interview earlier this month at her office. If we don’t change how we deliver universal health care, she said while gesturing to photographs of her grandchildren, “it won’t be there for those little kids as they grow up.”

“We cannot protect the status quo,” she said: If we do, the money just won’t be there.

Tall with blond hair and a disarmingly direct manner, Ms. Matthews is a rounder version of her older sister, actress Shelley Peterson, wife of former Ontario premier David Peterson. At 58, the twice married Ms. Matthews has three grown children, four grandchildren, a PhD in demography and a happy life with a “wonderful man” named Richard Nancarrow, an environmental engineer who lives in London.

She carries her passion for politics and health care in her genes, beginning with her CCF-supporting working-class grandfather, John Jack Matthews, a one-term mayor of Brantford, Ont.

Her father, Don Matthews, like his father before him, supported the CCF. But as he became more successful in life – he owned Matthews Construction – he moved to the right politically and joined the Progressive Conservative Party.

Although she grew up in an affluent family, Ms. Matthews, the third of her father’s six children by his first wife, Joyce, went to public schools and worked weekends and summers in a fruit and vegetable stand at the market in London. She got the “political bug” campaigning for her father as a teenager in his first run for office, in 1968.

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