Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has appointed her third corrections minister in seven months after the surprise resignation of David Orazietti from the troubled portfolio in December.
In a Thursday morning ceremony marking a minor cabinet shuffle, Marie-France Lalonde moved from the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, where she had presided since June, to Community Safety and Correctional Services.
The province's new chief jailer takes over a portfolio that has bounced from crisis to crisis over the past 18 months. The ministry is grappling with a dysfunctional new superjail in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, continuing fallout at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre over the use of shower stalls as cells, constant labour unrest, understaffing and, most recently, startling revelations about the mistreatment of inmates in solitary confinement.
Ms. Lalonde, whose riding of Ottawa-Orléans includes the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, leaned on her past as a social worker to answer reporters' questions on Thursday.
"I had the great pleasure of addressing some of the concerns of inmates and individuals with mental health in my former life, I can say. I think this portfolio will bring that aspect of my career before politics," she said.
The ministry hit a less turbulent period after Mr. Orazietti took over last June. But in October, the revelation that Adam Capay, a young indigenous inmate awaiting trial and in declining mental health, had been languishing in an acrylic-glass-lined segregation cell for four years rocked the ministry.
Initially, Mr. Orazietti called it an administrative matter. A day later, he announced that Mr. Capay's conditions would be improved – that he would be moved to a cell with dimmable lights and would have access to a day room and a shower.
Mr. Orazietti sometimes struggled to handle communications when he found himself in the hot seat. On one occasion, when a reporter asked who was to blame for the poor conditions at the Thunder Bay Jail, he said: "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." He then stormed off.
The Capay controversy began to subside after Mr. Orazietti appointed respected former federal prisons ombudsman Howard Sapers to head up a formal review of solitary confinement and boosted the number of staff working directly with segregated inmates.
But on Dec. 16, the day after a mentally ill inmate in segregation died at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont., Mr. Orazietti, 48, announced his retirement from politics.
Ms. Wynne placed Kevin Flynn on the file on an interim basis before announcing Ms. Lalonde's appointment.
"I think we all agree, as the Premier said, that the conditions of [Mr. Capay's] segregation were unacceptable," Ms. Lalonde said Thursday. "We have already made some commitments to change those … that's why we've also asked Mr. Sapers to review the issue that some of our inmates are facing in terms of segregation and logistics of where they stay."
Ms. Wynne also made a few other tweaks to her cabinet to highlight small business, seniors' affairs and women's issues.
The Premier opted to hive off a piece of the economic development ministry and hand it to Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal. Mr. Leal will now be in charge of small business as well as his current duties. The move marks the second time in a year that Ms. Wynne has pared back Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid's responsibilities. Last June, Mr. Duguid gave up the Ministry of Infrastructure to Bob Chiarelli and saw International Trade – previously a subset of his portfolio – become a standalone ministry under Michael Chan.
Mr. Leal said the most recent change was made because Mr. Duguid needs more time to steer Ontario's trade with the United States in light of president-elect Donald Trump's pledge to renegotiate NAFTA. Mr. Trump's move could slam the province's manufacturing sector, particularly auto makers. Mr. Leal added it had nothing to do with Mr. Duguid's health – the hard-charging minister suffered a heart attack last year.
"It goes without saying that with the new administration that will be entering the White House on Jan. 20 … President Trump talked about various issues related to NAFTA and the TPP, and that will take a lot of focus of Minister Duguid's time," Mr. Leal said. "Knowing Brad as well as I do, he will be up to that important challenge."
Ms. Wynne also upgraded Women's Issues into a full portfolio and put Indira Naidoo-Harris in charge. Ms. Naidoo-Harris will also retain her Child Care portfolio. She faces the twin tasks of implementing Ms. Wynne's promise to create 100,000 more child-care spaces over five years and tackling the province's gender wage gap.
Tracy MacCharles, who was previously in charge of Women's Issues, will replace Ms. Lalonde in Government and Consumer Services. She previously held the consumer services portion of the portfolio from 2013 to 2014. She will be tasked with steering legislation on payday loans, door-to-door sales and home inspections.
The Premier further expanded Dipika Damerla's seniors' affairs portfolio to a full ministry; previously, Ms. Damerla had been responsible for co-ordinating seniors' issues across other government departments.
"It's a strong signal to seniors in Ontario that this government cares about them and that they're an important demographic," she told reporters, adding that her priority was to find more ways for senior citizens to stay in their own homes. "We want seniors to live on their own as long as they're able to and as long as they want to."
Taken together, the moves indicate some of the government's priorities in the 17 months before the next election.
For one, the Liberals want to highlight the province's improving economy – it has been at or near the front of the provincial pack for the past two years – and find ways to spread the wealth around. The government is also trying to court seniors, the demographic that votes the most reliably.
The mini-shuffle is the second rearranging of the deck chairs in less than a year. Last June, Ms. Wynne undertook a much more extensive cabinet revamp, moving around roughly half the ministries, including top portfolios such as Education, the Ministry of the Attorney-General, Treasury Board and Advanced Education. Those moves also expanded cabinet significantly in an attempt to make sure MPPs in vulnerable ridings do not quit before the next election.
The new changes all involved current ministers, meaning cabinet will remain at 29 members, down from the 30 before Mr. Orazietti's departure.
Ms. Wynne's cabinet is one of the largest in the country, with more than half of her 57-member caucus around the table.