Lisa MacLeod is back in the hot seat with autism activists a week after Premier Doug Ford shuffled her out of the challenging ministry of children, community and social services.
At issue are remarks MacLeod — now the minister of tourism, culture and sport — made after getting off the inaugural summer Porter Airlines flight from Toronto landing at Muskoka Airport near Gravenhurst.
“I used to be the minister of tears but as you can see from here I’m now the minister of cheers and it’s a real nice refresher,” MacLeod quipped Thursday, using the term government insiders bandy about for her former portfolio because it has been dominated by the politically sensitive autism file.
Meanwhile, on Friday, a scathing report written by a backbench PC MPP on the government’s autism changes surfaced, saying the province’s wait list of 23,000 children who need services is “unverified” and “likely inaccurate.”
MPP Roman Baber (York Centre) also said a “retreat” from the original plan is in order and that the province needs a new one “predicated on accurate and nonconfrontational messaging.”
MacLeod’s latest comment raised hackles in the autism community in the wake of her controversial February reforms that capped payouts to parents of children on the spectrum based on age and family income, and that in many cases came nowhere close to meeting their financial needs.
“It’s really adding insult to injury, salt in the wounds,” behavioural therapist Louis Busch told the Star on Friday.
“It’s an incredibly insensitive statement about an extremely challenging issue for Ontario families to joke about some of the damage that was done with changes to the autism program and other social services is really beyond belief.”
Amid a fierce backlash from autism families, MacLeod announced in late March an extra $300 million in funding and promised to change the system yet again to be more responsive to children’s needs.
A spokesman for MacLeod maintained her line about tears and cheers was not a reference to autism.
“Minister MacLeod was referring to the numerous times she was driven to tears hearing about the experiences endured by victims of sex trafficking, reading about the deaths of kids in care, and Ontarians struggling to lift themselves out of poverty,” Derek Rowland said in an emailed statement.
The autism file is now in the hands of Todd Smith.
Baber’s report, which the government said was one of about 40 contributions from PC caucus members on the autism issue, is based on his own consultations within the autism community,
The government, he said, should not try to clear the wait list — as has been its main goal — because “you can never clear the wait list” with more kids being added to it each year than come off it.
Baber, however, maintains that if the government is willing to keep the current $600 million in annual funding for a model based on kids needs that will produce a better system but says “it will have to ration the number of children in treatment.”
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1