On July 15, the Toronto Star published a massive, three-part investigation titled, “Did lobbyists influence Doug Ford’s COVID-19 decisions?” (The short answer is yes, and they probably could have said that without couching it in a question). In the series, Richard Warnica, the Star’s business feature writer, examines the ways in which political influence steered the decisions of Ontario Premier Ford’s government throughout the pandemic.

The lobbying connections are a maze of back scratching and power brokering all intended to keep some industries open, even in the face of widespread COVID-19 infection. Warnica examines many industries, but long-term care gets its own article because the result of this lobbying led to serious consequences, including the loss of life. 

Finally, the Star is catching up to where we in independent media have been since the start of the pandemic and before.

My first article for Passage on long-term care, titled, “COVID-19 Has Exposed The Horrors Of Long-Term Care Facilities,” was published on April 20, 2020. At the time, I had just started gathering Canada-wide data on deaths in long-term care, which had reached 840. I was the only one in Canada doing this work. 

In researching the piece, it was obvious that it was impossible to properly write about long-term care in Ontario without mentioning the deep political connections operators and lobbyists have with the government. Indeed, writing about the state of long-term care in any province has to be done while also examining the role that political interference, corruption and profiteering play. 

In June 2020, the Star published a four-man investigation into private long-term care, which would go on to win a National Newspaper Award. The investigation didn’t mention lobbyists or partisan political connections at all. 

I’ve been fascinated by how rare it has been to read about these connections, and Warnica’s recent series perhaps is an example of why: the articles are very long and difficult to follow, especially if the names mentioned mean nothing to you. 

I read through with an eye to who I knew: the staffer and her boss, an MPP who I met with frequently a decade ago; the party activist who harasses me on Twitter; the man who threatened to sue me when I wrote about Conservative student activist training camps; the man I have a vague recollection of sitting in a vehicle with at a Progressive Conservative convention.

But to a casual observer, the web that exists between government, industry and lobbyists is dizzying and hard to keep track of, which is why articles about the system itself need to include these connections regularly, rather than holding them off for one-time investigations. Especially since, at month 15 of the pandemic, the full scope of the damage caused by what these folks are lobbying for has been laid bare. (Warnica insists they’re not “movie villains” and that “most of them are just normal people doing a job.” I’m curious about the folks not captured by the “most.”) 

It isn’t hard to find the connections that Conservative and Liberal lobbyists have to long-term care. Most of what has been published on the connections between long-term care, profits, partisan lobbyists and government before Warnica’s feature was first reported by Zaid Noorsumar, an independent journalist who has been writing about it for a long time, for Rank and File and J-Source.

An April 1, 2020 Rank and File article by Noorsumar, for example, examined how lobbyists pushed for the long-term care emergency order that Ford announced on March 27, which pleased the Ontario Long-Term Care Association (OLTCA) — the lobby group for the province’s mostly private, for-profit long-term care home operators — but was widely panned by unions representing staff.

Any research I’ve done into long-term care has gone back to Noorsumar’s writing on the sector. I don’t know if Warnica came across Noorsumar’s work. The series doesn’t mention it, and the analysis scraped data from the Ontario Lobbyist Registry and pieced together who was where, so it’s possible he never did. But it’s hard to imagine, as even a cursory search of lobbying and long-term care brings up Noorsumar’s work. By not referencing what research has been done before, Warnica erases Noorsumar, which is a shame, not the least because his work has been published in independent media, presumably for little money and even less praise. 

The list of lobbyists Warnica writes about have also been known for months. In November at HuffPost Canada, journalist Emma Paling gave a run-down of which long-term care lobbyists were also Progressive Conservative party donors. Paling’s work isn’t referenced by Warnica either. 

Warnica mentions many of the same players, but doesn’t spend much time on an individual who exemplifies why the lobbyist-politician nexus is such a threat to public safety. Andrew Brander, a chief lobbyist for OLTCA since the beginning of the pandemic, is now lobbying his former boss, Rod Phillips, who was named minister of long-term care in June. Brander became a lobbyist shortly after being director of communications for Phillips. Ontario media has been oddly silent about this, and Brander is only mentioned in a quarter of a sentence in Warnica’s feature. 

The feature does mention a couple death counts at specific facilities where there has been an especially shocking number. But it fails to mention just how many people died in all facilities owned/operated by the for-profit chains it includes for their use of Conservative lobbyists, including Revera (more than 860 deaths) and Extendicare (more than 680 deaths). Not referencing these totals hides the full scope of the destruction caused by the system.

Torstar itself also has lobbying connections. Warnica mentions that Rubicon Strategies “has also done work for NordStar, the owner of Torstar.” That work was lobbying for “the expansion of the digital subscription tax credit, in order to increase the viability of Canadian newspapers.” Rubicon is co-owned by former Ford campaign manager and Tory golden boy Kory Teneycke, and the firm also lobbies on behalf of Amazon.

Lobbying and profits go hand-in-hand. It’s one thing to lobby on behalf of a system for more beds, but when every single bed is another unit of profit, the lobbying very quickly turns into a race to make more money. 

Media investigations into long-term care demonstrate very clearly why the entire system needs to be made public. But journalists seem to always stop short of completing this circle, instead leaving readers scratching their heads wondering what can be done to fix this deeply rotten system.

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