By Mike Pearson, News staff
Anti-poverty advocates in Hamilton now have a powerful advocate at Queen’s Park.
Liberal MPP Ted McMeekin has shifted from Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs to Community and Social Services, taking on the responsibilities of social assistance, programs for adults with developmental disabilities, child and spousal support orders and accessibility standards.
Calling the appointment one of the biggest challenges of his life, McMeekin plans to draw on his social work background in his new portfolio. McMeekin has a Master’s degree in social work from Sir Wilfrid Laurier University.
During his first full day on the job on Tuesday, McMeekin was preparing to meet with Frances Lankin, co-commisioner of a review of social assistance. A report by the commission released last fall recommended changes such as merging Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) into a single entity and an immediate increase of the Ontario Works monthly benefit for a single person from $599 to $699.
“(The recommendations) all have merit,” said McMeekin. “But there’s a difference between a great idea and an implementable great idea.”
McMeekin admits finding cash to address the province’s poverty issues won’t be easy when Ontario continues to deal with an $11.8-billion deficit.
“It gets tricky because every dollar you find for a program, you have to locate somewhere else,” said McMeekin. “It’s a bit of a balancing act.”
Last fall, the minority Liberal government announced one-time transitional funding of $42 million to help municipalities offset the loss of the Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit. The program helped low income residents cover moving expenses and the cost of first and last month’s rent. McMeekin was one of several MPPs who clamoured for the funding.
Along with his cabinet post, incoming Premier Kathleen Wynne appointed McMeekin to two cabinet committees, including the treasury board and the priorities and planning committee.
McMeekin plans to meet with ministry staff and consumer groups before advocating for drastic changes, such as the Ontario Works merger with ODSP. McMeekin said many in the ODSP community are concerned by the union.
McMeekin was impressed by Premier Wynne’s first day in office which included a friendly meeting with each Liberal MPP. McMeekin said Wynne also plans to speak to members of the opposition to help find common ground.
“I think Kathleen Wynne is a bright and very substantive premier who is collaborative by nature and wants to listen and work with people,” said McMeekin.
If another election is held this year, McMeekin confirmed he would run for a fifth term. Progressive Conservative candidate Donna Skelly has also confirmed she will contest the Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale seat.
While many had pegged McMeekin as a possible replacement for outgoing education minister Laurel Broten, that post went to Guelph MPP Liz Sandals.
McMeekin said he’s pleased that many school boards are resuming sports and extra-curricular activities after teachers withdrew from voluntary activities beginning last fall. The move was staged to protest Bill 115 which imposed contracts on teachers whose unions had not already negotiated deals with the province.
“Our number one priority is to get extra-curriculars functioning again in the schools,” McMeekin said.