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Canada Ontario Correctional Services Minister David Orazietti quits

David Orazietti at Queen's Park in Toronto on Feb. 11, 2013.

STRINGER/CANADA/REUTERS

The cabinet minister in charge of Ontario's troubled prison system has abruptly resigned six turbulent months into the job.

David Orazietti, the province's minister of community safety and correctional services, announced his immediate resignation from cabinet Friday afternoon in his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie. His departure throws one of the government's stickiest files into chaos and sets up what is likely to be a hard-fought by-election in one of the governing Liberals' few remaining redoubts in Northern Ontario.

His resignation comes after a difficult legislative session, in which the government faced repeated criticism for violent, understaffed prisons and dire cell conditions. The crisis came to a head with the case of Adam Capay, a prisoner at the Thunder Bay Jail whose plight became the subject of a series of Globe and Mail articles this fall after the province's human-rights commissioner revealed that the inmate was confined to a windowless solitary cell with 24-hour light.

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Mr. Orazietti said he would leave cabinet immediately and quit his Sault Ste. Marie seat at the end of the month. In a phone interview with The Globe, he said he resigned for his family's sake and rejected any suggestion that the Capay controversy or differences within cabinet led to his departure.

"It's fair to say that none of that played a role in anything," he said from his constituency office in Sault Ste. Marie. "In fact, the progress we've made over the last six months made the decision more difficult in that I can see us moving forward. Quite frankly, I think we've turned the corner in this ministry in many respects."

Indeed, things seemed to be looking up for Mr. Orazietti this week when he announced Thursday a much-needed boost of 239 new corrections staff to work on solitary confinement and mental-health issues – two flashpoints for the ministry in recent months.

First elected to Sault Ste. Marie council at the age of 28, he won election to provincial office in 2003. He spent a decade on the backbench before Premier Kathleen Wynne elevated him to cabinet as natural resources minister in 2013. He was moved to government and consumer services after the 2014 election.

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Last June, he was promoted to community safety and correctional services, inheriting multiple crises from the previous minister, Yasir Naqvi: a dysfunctional new superjail in Etobicoke, continuing fallout at Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre over the use of shower stalls as cells and chronic understaffing.

This fall, he responded to a review of the province's solitary confinement practices by simply ordering another review.

Then, he found himself at the centre of the storm over Mr. Capay. Accused of killing another inmate in a fight, Mr. Capay has spent over four years awaiting trial, much of it in an acrylic-glass-lined cell with continuous light.

Subsequent Globe stories revealed that Mr. Naqvi had been alerted to Mr. Capay's circumstances months earlier and that another inmate had died in the same cell due in part to ventilation problems created by the acrylic glass.

Mr. Orazietti's initial response about the case was that it was an administrative decision. A day later, however, he announced the Mr. Capay's conditions would be improved, after he was moved to a cell with dimmable lights and access to a day room and showers.

Mr. Orazietti sometimes struggled to handle the communications on the hot seat. On one occasion when asked by a reporter who was to blame for the poor conditions at the Thunder Bay Jail, for instance, he stormed off after saying: "I know you want to place blame. I'm not placing blame on anyone … I know you want to place blame and I know that's the way you want to write some of the articles that you want to write."

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Ms. Wynne on Friday announced that Labour Minister Kevin Flynn will temporarily take over Mr. Orazietti's portfolio on top of his current duties.

The resignation also sets the stage for a by-election in Sault Ste. Marie. Although the Liberals have won the seat by absolute majorities since 2003, the NDP would dearly love to add the riding to their Northern Ontario stronghold and are certain to fight hard for it. The Liberals have had a tough go in the polls over the past year, a result of anger over high electricity prices, the privatization of Hydro One and a string of ethics scandals.

"Minister Orazietti's resignation is a reflection of the tired, self-interested government that has held onto power for 13 long years," said Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown in a statement.

Ms. Wynne, meanwhile, praised Mr. Orazietti for his "passionate, activist approach to making a positive difference in peoples' lives."

"Public service is a great honour, but it is not without sacrifice. Particularly for members who travel great distances to be at Queen's Park, the time away from family is hard. While I will personally miss David and his unshakeable focus on meeting the needs and expectations of the people we are honoured to serve, I am happy that his decision to step down as the MPP for Sault Ste. Marie will mean more time to spend with his wife, Jane, and their two children," she said in a statement.

Asked for his career plans, Mr. Orazietti said he had nothing scheduled beyond spending Christmas with his family. "I travel about 400 miles to go to work," he said. "When we started, our daughter was three years old. She's now 16. Our son wasn't around and he's going to be eight. This is a decision so that I'm able to spend more time with them. I've missed many of the milestones in their lives and made a personal sacrifice to do that."

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