TORONTO — Ontario introduced legislation Tuesday to enable the extension of some pandemic emergency orders over the next year, as Premier Doug Ford denied opposition accusations of government overreach during the COVID-19 crisis.
Ford said the legislation would allow the government to extend or amend some emergency orders a month at a time, with the law itself expiring a year after it's passed.
He said the bill would allow his government to move quickly to extend or change public health measures as the province continues to emerge from the strict lockdown rules it has been under since March.
"I'm dead against big government, I'm dead against the big brother nanny state telling you what to do. That's just not me," Ford said at a news conference. "But we have to help the people of Ontario get through this. There's certain things we have to move on, and we can't sit around and wait three or four weeks. We have to move in hours."
Under current legislation, the province can only issue emergency orders while a state of emergency — set to expire July 15 — is in place.
Ford's office said it would introduce a motion Wednesday to extend the state of emergency until July 24 to ensure there is no gap between that declaration and when the new bill takes effect.
The bill also gives the government the option to renew the legislation for another year after 12 months of use, but Ford said he doesn't see that happening.
"We're doing it to help the people — I don't want a power grab," Ford said.
Ontario first declared a state of emergency March 17 when the province's COVID-19 cases began to increase.
It has subsequently issued a series of emergency orders that have been extended a number of times since the start of the pandemic.
Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said the legislation is needed to "bridge the gap" between the strict measures initially required to flatten the virus curve, and the less stringent conditions needed as case numbers improve.
"It allows us to transition away from the declaration of emergency, which is an important signal to people that we're on our way out," she said. "But it also allows us to ensure that ... we still can keep in place the important tools we need."
Jones said the bill will also introduce additional reporting requirements to bolster oversight. The government will have to report any emergency order extensions to a legislative committee once a month and table a report on the use of the law six months after it expires.
"We want to make sure that we're not overusing the declaration of emergency," she said.
But NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Ontarians need more transparency from the government during the pandemic, and the bill will move more important decision-making behind closed doors.
"The government is handing itself a heck of a lot of power for up to two years," she said. "On the surface, it looks like a pretty big over-reach by the government, and it's troubling."
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said while the government will need to have the ability to respond quickly as the pandemic continues, accountability mechanisms should remain in place.
"I want to make sure that if we're going to be granting the government such extraordinary powers over the next year, that the proper checks and balances and oversight and accountability is in the legislation," he said.
Liberal house leader John Fraser said the bill must contain proper oversight, and the government should have to justify every decision it makes.
"It’s important that all members of the house are made aware of these types of decisions and the reasoning behind them," Fraser said in a statement.
Ontario reported 112 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, and two new deaths. The total number of cases stood at 36,060, including 31,603 marked as resolved and 2,691 deaths. The province also reported 177 newly resolved cases, and 15,100 tests completed over the previous 24 hours.
The number of people in hospital because of the virus increased slightly, while patients in intensive care and on ventilators decreased.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said 23 of the province's 34 public health units reported no new cases of COVID-19, and five reported five or fewer cases.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 7, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press