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BLOG: The Power of a People’s Referendum

Posted: June 1, 2023

(June 1, 2023)

By Natalie Mehra, Executive Director

We know that the overwhelming majority of Ontarians do not want our public hospitals privatized to for-profit hospitals and clinics. We know this because we hear it in our families, in our communities. The polls reveal that the opposition to the privatization of our hospital services is deep, it is everywhere, it crosses all political party lines.

So why, then, would we hold a volunteer-run referendum?

I think everyone who has volunteered over the last five months now has a deep understanding of the power of a people’s referendum. You all know, from the conversations you had in community groups, at the doors as you leafletted, on the streets at the voting stations. You know that the power of this kind of mass public outreach and education is undeniable. From the Ontario Health Coalition central office we distributed 1.5 million leaflets. There are some left over in the hands of volunteers and local coalitions but the vast majority of them have been distributed in communities across Ontario. That is astonishing.

When the Health Minister said, in February 2022 prior to the election, that she was opening Independent Health Facilities (aka private for-profit clinics) and the private for-profit hospitals to do surgeries, I was walking across the living room. The government’s press conference was playing on CP24 and I stopped dead in my tracks. I found the clip online and watched it over and over. Since there are only two remaining functioning private for-profit hospitals in Ontario, and very few IHFs that do surgeries, I found it inexplicable that the Minister would specify these sectors in the context of clearing the backlog of surgeries from the pandemic. There was just a tiny amount of capacity in the private clinics and hospitals, in the scheme of things. No Minister historically would have singled out private clinics or hospitals for specific comment.

We knew that the Ford government was close to the for-profit health care industry in long-term care, in the labs and virtual care (and Shoppers Drug Mart and more). By the time the Minister had made that statement, they already had privatized COVID testing, vaccinations, expanded for-profit virtual care and let them extra-bill patients with impunity. But the Minister’s statement was very specific, and it meant one thing. They were now coming for the public hospitals.

We held twenty press conferences across Ontario. The government sent out a spokesperson from the Ministry who did not mince words. They categorically denied that they were expanding the private clinics and hospitals and that they had any intention of doing so.  This was two months before the election. Literally two months after the election they announced that they were moving forward with the exact privatization they had denied prior to the election. They announced plans to expand for-profit clinics, open more for-profit clinics and build new private for-profit outpatient hospitals.

Worse, in the time period in which the Ford government spokesperson was categorically denying that they were expanding private clinics, they actually doubled the funding to the private clinics.

They could never have won an election if they told the truth about their intentions. So they did not.

When faced with a profoundly undemocratic attack on the foundational public services in our local communities — services that we all paid to build over a century — we could not simply hold a small rally of a few hundred people, or even a few thousands people. In response to that kind of threat we have to build public awareness and power. We have to insist on creating democratic spaces when they take them away. We have to find a way to reach out to the public and make visible the deeply-held belief that our public hospitals should be just that — public. Not owned and operated to take profit out, but owned and operated in the public interest to provide care for our communities.

That is why we held a people’s referendum. It set a deadline. It requires massive public outreach. We would have to make it visible, and do the deepest public education that we could. It would bring that massive public opposition to privatization out into the light for everyone to see. It would galvanize the forces of good and the public interest. It would capture the imagination of volunteers.

Could we do more? Yes, of course, always.

And we will!

But over the past five months, a core of perhaps seventy people organized almost half a million people to vote, recruited thousands to volunteer, put out thousands of pieces of communication on social media, built larger networks than we have ever had, got hundreds of businesses to support the campaign, put out thousands of lawn signs….oh, and distributed more than a million leaflets.

Anyone responding with contempt or dismissal has no idea of the power of this kind of movement but don’t worry. They will see.

Thank you all. I am so proud of us. It is the honour of a lifetime to work with all of you to safeguard our cherished public health care for all.