On September 1, 2020, Atin Ito Publisher Leonardo Santos spent a little over 30 minutes speaking with Mr. Aris Babikian, Member of Provincial Parliament representing Scarborough-Agincourt. Topics candidly discussed were the economic recovery plans of the province Ontario, the reopening of schools, the long term care and systemic racism issues.
ATIN ITO: Good afternoon Mr. Babikian, thank you very much for giving us the time today. Please feel free to give your opening remarks.
AB: This issue (Covid-19 pandemic) is something that no one can predict. Its outcome is unpredictable from day to day, hour to hour because things change and based on our previous 4-5 months experience, we are planning for the best.
ATIN ITO: I understand that the Provincial Parliament had planned a lot over the past several weeks and months to try and help out in the recovery programs. The second quarter economic figures are out and it showed a decline of 38.7% in GDP in Canada. Ontario accounts for about 40% of the total Canadian GDP. What is your assessment on how we will move forward given the circumstances surrounding the economy right now?
AB: Well, our government has established in the last few weeks through the legislative assembly’s finance committee has been organizing and hearing lots of witnesses from small businesses, medium businesses and large businesses on the best way to handle the opening the economy and to be able to deal with the current crisis. This in not only the provincial government’s role but also we have to cooperate with the federal government on many of these issues. We are in constant consultation and planning with the government of Canada to handle the situation down the road on how to help business and industry to be able to cope with the current crisis and we understand that a lot of businesses have closed, lots of people have lost their jobs, a large number of people are unemployed and that’s why we for example came up with the idea of “Ontario Made” to start stimulating the economy by encouraging residents to consider buying “Ontario Made” first. We launched a public education campaign to sensitize the masses with the concept of “Ontario Made” so that people can start buying locally thereby stimulating the economy. In addition, our government brought out the “Ontario Together” plan which has been allocating money and helping local manufacturers to start manufacturing in Ontario to provide more employment for individuals for people and stimulate the economy. I have been visiting many local manufacturers together with my colleagues, the cabinet and the Premiere and we have seen how the business community in Ontario have adopted that concept. They came on board and started manufacturing many of the things that we used to bring from the outside and in that way, we are able to move on. I have been in many sewing manufacturing places and they tell me that they need people with sewing experience because they are having shortages of employees to start producing their products. There are many ways to do it and we are moving on this and of course after consultations with the finance committee of the legislative assembly are finished, we are going to consider all the recommendations of the business people on how to open up the economy and how to overcome these difficulties we have experienced these past 4-5 months.
ATIN ITO: Are there any specific industries that will benefit more from these programs of “Ontario Made”?
AB: No. It is wide open. Anyone who is willing to retool their factories to start producing material from PPE’s, to food, garments, sanitizers, anything you name it, we are available to hear out their concepts, ideas, we are very willing to listen to them. I have to say that there are many people who have started to approach me personally, I know my colleagues too. For instance, I know a gentleman who has Canadian rights for European scaffolding materials, ladders, etc. which are of very, very good quality. He opened his business, he set up his factory and he started producing. I visited his factory and it is an amazing product and they just they need a little bit of support so that they can start hiring more people, more sales persons, they want to open retail locations and they want to hire people for these local stores. Another gentleman has approached me and he is willing to produce 5 or 6 different lines of Middle Eastern and South Asian food in Ontario. Instead of bringing in all these materials from overseas, he is willing to open manufacturing facilities for each of the different lines. Again, I am willing to bring their concepts and their ideas to the Ministry of Economic Development and help them start producing here. One of the other major successes recently was with 3M Canada for example. They started manufacturing PPE’s here in Ontario. Usually, we imported these from their US factories. So it is wide ranging as long as you have a good concept, you have a plan, and you have a clear vision. We are willing to listen and work with you, develop you concept and start moving the economy.
ATIN ITO: Those industries that are in health and safety primarily will benefit from manufacturing operations provided these can retool. But what about those in industries like hotels, resorts, tourism locations and so forth and so on, they are challenged because of the issues of reopening relative to possible spikes in Covid-19 infections.
AB: During those hearings we had in Queen’s Park, people from the travel and tourism industry came and presented their views like those in the catering businesses and the wedding business industry. I am happy to say that the Minister (Lisa MacLeod) of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries is very much hands on. She is in touch with these industries and she had hundreds of consultation meetings with the various industries to try to encourage to try to see how we can help these industries to move on. I know that these industries are the hardest hit and we are cognizant that we need to help them and we need to start providing them with the support that they need and that the Minister is quite open. We already allocated lots of funding for these industries to help them overcome these difficult times until we finalize our final project concepts and plans on how to help them to survive.
ATIN ITO: So in summary, basically the key message is that all the industries and business areas are being looked at relative to the people and the companies operating in those businesses and are coordinating with the government to look into survival and growth modes looking forward?
AB: Well yes, I mean for us in Ontario, as you appreciate in the first 3 months of this whole pandemic, it was very difficult for we did not know like the rest of the world, we did not know what we were dealing with. So our first priority was the health care sector. We had a shortage of PPE’s. We did not know how the pandemic would evolve. How much hospital stays we would need. Our focus was the health care sector. But after those initial 3 months, we started looking at the other industries, our economy, the small businesses, the medium businesses and how we can support them and work with them. We are still in consultations and part of the issue also is that we are trying to work with the federal government, the municipal government to eliminate much of the red tape that we have been facing so that we can encourage businesses and for them to start benefiting from these so they can move in quickly.
ATIN ITO: Thank you for your insights on the economy. Let’s now move on to the education area. Schools are set to open very soon in various areas of the province and as of today, the teachers’ unions have filed a labour challenge basically alleging that the province is not implementing its own safety rules. What are your insights about that?
AB: What we have done is we have created one of the most generous, the best back to school package to make sure that our students go back to school in a safe and healthy environment. Our plan is the best plan in the country. Many of the other provinces have started adopting our plan. It’s not only the plan but we have also put money where needed. We are spending close to $1.5 B on various aspects of the safe reopening of the schools from hiring teachers, caretakers, nurses in schools and I can go on and on. It is quite a lengthy list. The amount of money we are spending to keep our schools safe, for example, the buses, the cleaning of the buses. Every shift, the buses will be cleaned. We are providing masks to the students, additional money for ventilation of the schools to make them healthier. We are looking at everything possible of course in consultation with our public health and mental health experts. We have even consulted with the city and others. For example recently in Scarborough, we had a meeting with the Scarborough Health Network infectious disease and pediatric specialists and asked them. We sat down and discussed with them about their concerns and how we could address these. We had to be ready to open the schools next week. We had very good feedback from them. Similarly the Minister of Education has been meeting with different health sectors in several regions and consulting with them, listening to them and trying to address with them for their input on how schools will be affected. Of course, we can never give a 100% guarantee and complete control. To expect this is unreasonable considering the pandemic and how that is evolving. Will there be isolated incidents? Yes there will be and there are plans to address these outbreaks. Our plan is a moving document and if there are any adjustments and modifications, we will do what are needed and include these. We are bringing the best possible plan based on the advice we are getting from many different people. On top of that, recently we established the special committee and the best specialist (Dr. Dirk Huyer) in the province and country is in charge in the event of an outbreak. If there is an outbreak, this doctor and his team will be able to handle the situation. They will advise us how to control and prevent. What I am trying to say is that many parents are concerned and may have doubts and that’s why we have provided different choices, distance learning, e-learning and physical (in classroom) learning. It’s up to the parents make that choice. We are also working with the (school) boards, consulting with them and how to prevent any future outbreak.
ATIN ITO: Basically you are very confident that you have a very comprehensive plan of addressing health and safety concerns of all publics relative to education?
AB: Well, I am confident about it but I have to be realistic. I am not a health expert. I am not a specialist. As this pandemic has shown in other jurisdictions around the world, (it still) might evolve, might change but we are ready under any circumstances to address those concerns and we will be monitoring the situation on a daily basis and we will work with the specialists and our people to address if there any major issue.
ATIN ITO: Okay, thank you very much for that Mr. Babikian but could you also please comment on the long term care issues that have transpired in the early days of Covid-19 and in fact there at TV ads suggesting that long term care should not be a profit oriented operation in the province. Any comments with regard to that?
AB: I don’t’ want to prejudge anything because right now you know the province created a special committee to investigate, a special investigator (Ombudsman Paul Dube) to look at this issue. Hopefully we will get the results very soon as this is a priority for us and as you have seen some of the long term care places where there was a problem, the province did not shy away from stepping in and taking over these institutions allocating nurses and hospitals from various jurisdictions to go and run those. Is the long term care industry in perfect shape? Of course not. So this was something that we learned from it. The long term care problem did not happen overnight. It has been a problem in existence for the last 15 years. Now we are committed. As the Premiere said, we are committed to address this issue with whatever it takes, we will do it. We don’t want our seniors to face the same situation they have in the past. We owe it to our seniors to provide them with the quality of life they deserve in their twilight years. We are going to address this. Nothing is off the table, everything is on the table but we need to wait for the recommendations of the committee.
ATIN ITO: Is there an expected timeline by when the committee will be able finish its study?
AB: Well, I am hoping we will have the recommendations by end of this month or early next month.
ATIN ITO: One final topic, I’d like to address is the systemic racism issue and racism in general that continues to be a very burning issue that has gone violent in many cases and in fact the statue of John MacDonald was torn down in Montreal this past weekend. Any insights on how we will tackle racism moving forward?
AB: Well the Premiere tackled this issue head on. Yes we have a problem. We have issues. We need to address them. In the 21st century, our society should not be facing this kind of systematic discrimination toward certain communities, aboriginals and other visible minorities. That’s why the Premiere appointed a certain individual (Jamil Jivani, Council on Equality of Opportunity) to head the task force to address the issue of systemic racism, and to come up with recommendations to the Premiere and to the cabinet. We already started. I already noticed the Solicitor General has been working with the police department very closely on this issue. We allocated additional money to address some of the problems we are facing, retraining, re-education, sensitizing individuals about this issue. We are adamant that we will work very hard to eliminate this once and for all. We cannot continue to face this problem every now and then. In the 21st century, a society like Canada, I cannot comment on other countries and other jurisdictions, but Canada is a country where everyone is welcome regardless of their race, color, religion, etc. They are welcome, they are treated equally. I come from a minority group. I came to Canada with nothing. Today I have been provided with the opportunity and everyone should have the same opportunity that I had and that others had. We need to address this issue head on. We cannot sweep it under the rug.
ATIN ITO: I understand. Ultimately, it is a behavioral and cultural change within. It comes from within the person, and you need a lot of things going on within that person or people that need to change.
AB: As a government institution, police department or other institutions, you can only do so much. It will take time for us. Personally, I believe that to tackle this issue head on, you need to start from your education system. The education system is the basic. When you put in the proper education system where students are being treated equally and we eliminate the racism, the bullying that’s going on. It will take time but I think the Minister of Education is very sensitive to this issue. You know when there was a problem in the Peel Region, he immediately took on the issue. He appointed the proper person to address this issue. This issue of systemic racism is something we are quite concerned with. We want to address it. And hopefully, we will be able to eliminate it. Will it happen overnight? No one can expect that it will happen overnight. We need a time but as I said to build a building, we need to start with the first block. And the first block in our building is the education system.
ATIN ITO: Thank you very much for your inputs today Mr. Babikian. Any final remarks before we conclude today’s interview?
AB: I’d like to thank you for providing me with the opportunity. I can assure you that the government of Ontario is concerned with the welfare of our residents, our citizens regardless of where they come from whatever industry they belong, the kind of business they’re in, their health status, non-profitable groups, etc. , our seniors, our children, our families. All these aspects are important for us. The safety and well-being of our society is very important to us and we will not hold back in providing for the comfort and safety of our people.
ATIN ITO: Thank you very much.
Publisher’s Note: Atin Ito welcomes any reactions, any other relevant information and submissions from all interested parties regarding the contents of this article. Please email us @info@AINewsMediaOne.com.
About Aris Babikian:
Aris Babikian was elected to Ontario Legislature on June 7, 2018. He won over 50% of the vote, breaking the 30 year Liberal hold in Scarborough-Agincourt. He is the first Armenian elected to the Ontario Legislature. Prior to his election, Mr. Babikian served as a Citizenship Judge from 2009 to 2015. He is a member of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario.
About Leonardo Santos:
Leonardo Santos is a graduate of the University of the Philippines with B.S. Industrial Engineering and Master of Business Administration (MBA) degrees. He has had a number of professional and leadership roles in a number of IT and Telecommunications companies in the Philippines prior to becoming a Permanent Resident of Canada.