By Robert Cribb, Max Binks-Collier and Declan Keogh
Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles called out the government at Queen’s Park today for suppressing dozens of answers prepared by civil servants responding to questions from the Investigative Journalism Bureau and Toronto Star.
Staff in the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) prepared the answers for journalists investigating a controversial program that routinely suspends the licences of safe drivers. But Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney’s office blocked their release, according to internal communications obtained through freedom-of-information requests.
“Your government muzzled staff,” said Stiles, MPP for the riding of Davenport, during question period. “Why did the premier and the transport minister try to keep this information from the public?”
The program automatically suspends the driver’s licences of Ontario patients who are reported to the ministry as having certain health conditions. Under provincial law, doctors and health professionals must report patients with these conditions.
These suspensions can help keep Ontario’s roads safe. But the program is marked by errors and abuse, with little review of incoming reports by ministry officials, the Investigative Journalism Bureau and Toronto Star have found. Many Ontarians who are safe drivers needlessly lose their licences as a result. At stake are people’s livelihoods, emotional well-being, ability to care for their families and their trust in the health-care system.
The answers spanned about a dozen pages and numbered more than 2,000 words. But they were never sent.
“The (transportation minister’s office) has revised direction and requested that we send a single statement in response to all the reporter’s 35 questions,” reads an internal March 2022 email. Reporters later received a boilerplate statement of less than 300 words.
Despite multiple requests for comment for subsequent stories in the following months, reporters did not hear again from the MTO until October 2022, when the ministry provided another statement of less than 300 words. The meagre responses prompted the freedom-of-information requests.
Responding to Stiles during question period, Mulroney told the legislature that the ministry provided “multiple statements” to reporters on the province’s medical review program and arranged for a “briefing with subject-matter experts from the Ministry of Transportation.”
This briefing took place two weeks ago after reporters asked the ministry about the suppressed answers. Mulroney’s press secretary offered the 30-minute briefing on the condition that reporters could not quote the officials.
Throughout the investigation, reporters uncovered stories of Ontarians whose lives were upended by unnecessary licence suspensions. In one case, a nursing student went to the hospital during a flare-up of her depression. Without her licence, she could no longer care for a patient, reducing her income and threatening her ability to pay tuition. One man with no history of drunk driving lost his licence for 18 months when he saw his doctor after hearing about medication for alcohol cravings in 2015. Another man in his sixties from rural Ontario lost his licence after briefly fainting from suspected heat stroke while working outside in the hot sun all morning. Trapped in a village without public transit, he could no longer care for his elderly parents and considered selling the “dream home” he built with his late wife to live somewhere else.
“This is not the first time this government has interfered in the work of the independent public service,” Stiles said. “Just last month, the premier and this same minister were caught withholding important information about public transportation projects from the public.”
Last month, the Toronto Star reported on emails showing that the transportation minister’s office directed officials at Metrolinx to not include two NDP MPPs on a notice of upcoming tree removals in their constituencies. The premier’s office also wanted the removal of information about the number of trees to be cut down.
Stiles “clearly wants to construct a narrative that has nothing to do with the facts themselves,” Mulroney said. She also referenced a 2020 study that estimated that Ontario’s fitness-to-drive policies had prevented 1,211 collisions over a decade.
Stiles said the government continuously hides information from Ontarians in other areas, pointing to “questionable deals with insider developers on the Green Belt, secret mandate letters” and “sneaky minister’s zoning orders,” she said. “Now they’re squashing information and the facts about this licensing program.”