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Ontario Premier Doug Ford claps during Ted Arnott's acceptance speech for his re-election to the position of Speaker of the Ontario Legislative Assembly at Queen's Park in Toronto on Aug. 8.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

As Ontario politicians returned inside the Legislature on Monday for the start of a summer session, health care advocates outside the building pleaded for more action from the government to tackle the hospital staffing crunch.

The Ontario Federation of Labour and other public-sector union members rallied outside Queen’s Park, calling on Premier Doug Ford’s re-elected government to introduce policies that would address the struggling health care system and provide more support for those in need.

With the house back in session, the advocacy groups reiterated their long-standing requests for the government to double Ontario Disability Support Program rates as well as offer 10 permanent, paid sick days to be covered by individual businesses.

The advocates rallied after another weekend where hospitals across the province were hit with critical staffing shortages and some were forced to adjust service levels, including closing emergency rooms. Staffing shortfalls have been compounded by summer vacation season, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic’s seventh wave that resulted in the absences of 4,787 hospital staff during the week of July 16 through 22.

Montfort Hospital in Ottawa shut its emergency department for 12 hours overnight both Saturday and Sunday because of what it called an “unprecedented shortage” of nurses. The hospital returned to regular operations Monday. The intensive-care unit at Bowmanville Hospital remains shuttered, and both Toronto General and The Hospital for Sick Children have issued alerts in response to ICU staffing challenges.

The Ontario Nurses’ Association said members informed them of a total 10 hospitals that faced disruptions during the weekend. This is in addition to 25 hospitals that were grappling with department closings over the previous long weekend, some still continuing.

Doug Ford vows to fast-track accreditation of foreign-trained nurses to ease Ontario’s hospital crisis

ICU nurse and ONA member Shelly Ormsby told the crowd of the situation at the hospital where she works, noting the ICU closed two weeks ago because of a lack of staff and nurses being redirected to other departments. Ms. Ormsby and the ONA urged the province to repeal the contentious Bill 124, which caps public-sector wage increases at 1 per cent annually for a three-year term, in an effort to retain nurses in the system.

“After years of fighting a pandemic and fighting for our rights by fighting for the repeal of Bill 124, it is fair to say that nurses are fed up,” she said. “Nurses feel devalued, underappreciated and disrespected.”

Speaking to the challenges Monday, Health Minister Sylvia Jones said the situation in the province isn’t unprecedented, and to suggest the province’s health care system is in crisis would be “completely inappropriate.”

Contradictory to the information provided by the ONA on hospital disruptions, Ms. Jones said she was aware of six hospitals that were affected by department closings over the weekend. Neither Ontario Health nor the ministry were able to provide a list of hospitals experiencing closings.

Last week, Ms. Jones issued directives to the province’s colleges that regulate physicians and nurses to expedite the recruitment and accreditation of internationally trained health care workers in an effort to tackle the staffing challenges. In the letters, Ms. Jones said she expects a report back in two weeks outlining a plan to ramp up efforts.

“Let’s be clear, there is not a crumbling system in the province of Ontario. We have a very strong health care system,” Ms. Jones told reporters. “I would say what we have in Ontario is what we’re seeing internationally and that is a shortage of health care workers,”

Ms. Jones said the province has already made efforts to respond to the challenges, touting the addition of 10,500 health workers since the start of the pandemic. Those workers include 7,000 nurses.

Responding to the directive to improve accreditation, College of Nurses of Ontario spokesman Bradley Hammond said the college has already set a record in 2022 by registering 3,967 internationally trained nurses as of mid-June.

In a statement, Mr. Hammond said the college is working on a response to the minister’s letter and one area they hope to explore is the need for more targeted courses in the province to address “applicant education gaps,” which he noted is often a barrier to registration for international nurses.

“We are doing everything we can to register more nurses in Ontario. This includes continuing to collaborate with system partners and work with government to identify new opportunities and solutions to respond to growing system demand,” Mr. Hammond said.

Inside the Legislature on Monday, MPP Ted Arnott was re-elected as speaker, which Official Opposition NDP interim leader Peter Tabuns said came as a surprise to him as his party was under the impression Nina Tangri was Mr. Ford’s candidate of choice. The vote tally won’t be revealed as the speaker was chosen by secret ballot, but Ms. Tangri was nominated for the role by a member of the Progressive Conservative caucus while Mr. Arnott had his name brought forward by the opposition parties.

The house will reconvene Tuesday with a Speech from the Throne in which Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell will lay out the priorities of Mr. Ford and his government for the coming term. The province’s 2022-23 budget, originally introduced in April but not passed before the June election, will then be retabled.

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