Ontario Premier Doug Ford has suspended MPP Randy Hillier indefinitely from the Progressive Conservative caucus for allegedly making “disrespectful comments” to parents of children with autism, but Mr. Hillier said his comments were directed at the NDP, not parents.
Parents of autistic children were at the Ontario Legislature Wednesday to protest recent changes to the autism program. Lisa MacLeod, the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, repeatedly defended the changes in Question Period, saying they will make the system more equitable. But some parents say the new program is anything but fair and leaves little money for treatment and services.
Several parents told reporters outside the legislature that Mr. Hillier dismissed their concerns by saying, “Yada yada yada” at the end of Question Period.
Mr. Hillier later said his comments were directed at NDP MPP Monique Taylor, whom he accused of politicizing the issue. "If anybody believed that I was saying that to families, I would deeply apologize for that,” he said.
In a statement, Ms. Taylor said the incident is a distraction from the parents’ concerns. “The families were hurt by the dismissive and cruel nature of Randy Hillier’s heckle, whoever it was directed at, but families are far more hurt by Mr. Ford’s decision to cut their children’s services,” she said.
Mr. Ford said in a statement that Mr. Hillier’s comments “crossed the line” and that his participation in caucus will be evaluated at a future date. Mr. Hillier was later removed from a legislative committee.
“There is no doubt that this is the toughest file I have ever worked on. Minister MacLeod began reviewing the program her first day and developed a fair, equitable and sustainable program for all children and families,” Mr. Ford said.
“I want to listen to every parent and every family member who wants to share their stories and their asks,” he said. “But Mr. Hillier’s comments crossed the line, and that is unacceptable.”
Mr. Hillier, first elected in 2007, later told reporters he didn’t know what his suspension entailed and hadn’t yet spoken to Mr. Ford. “I’m sure in time I will have some conversations with the Premier and the heat of the moment will be subdued," he said.
The parents separately alleged that Mr. Ford was laughing in the legislature Wednesday. A spokesman for the Premier said he was not laughing at any of the parents. “The Premier was extremely sincere and sympathetic as he answered questions on the topic and he acknowledged that it was the most difficult file he’s ever worked on,” Simon Jefferies said.
The new autism program gives families as much as $140,000 to pay for treatment for a child from ages two to 18. But the government confirmed Tuesday that only families with an adjusted annual net family income of less than $55,000 will be eligible for that maximum, with funding determined on a sliding scale up to a maximum income of $250,000.
The funding is also subject to annual caps of $20,000 a year until a child turns six and $5,000 a year after that until age 18.
But families say intensive therapy can cost as much as $80,000 a year.
Ms. MacLeod has said her goal with the new program is to clear a backlog of 23,000 children waiting for treatment, saying it’s unfair that only about 8,400 are receiving funded therapy. She said the flow of kids coming off the wait list had slowed to a trickle, leading her to believe that if she didn’t make changes, they would stay on the list forever.
Kristen Ellison, whose eight-year-old son receives intensive therapy 25 hours a week, said she’ll only be able to afford a fraction of it under the new program.
“Every child with autism is different. And so while it might be equal, it’s not equitable, because every kid needs to be independently assessed and given what they need," she said. “For my son it means he’ll never have what he needs, because I can’t afford to pay it.”
Ms. MacLeod recently apologized after the Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysis said she and her staff told the organization at a meeting that it would be “four long years” if it didn’t help promote the new program. She said Tuesday that she doesn’t remember making the remark – but she hasn’t denied it, either, and described the meeting in question as “tense.”
With a report from the Canadian Press