Ford won’t ask Lisa MacLeod to resign after group says it was pressured to support revised autism program

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he won’t be asking his social services minister to resign after an association of behaviour analysts said she pressured them to support changes to the province’s autism program.

Ford says he hasn’t spoken with Lisa MacLeod about the allegations made by the Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysis but has already ruled out asking her to quit cabinet.

The group says the minister told the association it would be a long four years for them if they did not publicly support the revamped autism program, which they say will leave many children without adequate levels of therapy.

Ford stood by MacLeod when asked about the matter on Thursday.

« I never ever, I want to repeat that, ever, ask Lisa to resign, » Ford said. « She’s done an incredible job. »

MacLeod’s office has not denied the group’s allegations and has said its priority is supporting families of children and youth with autism.

The head of province’s largest public sector union, opposition politicians and parents of autistic children are calling on MacLeod to resign over the matter.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said if MacLeod doesn’t quit, Ford should force her out.

« Lisa MacLeod is supposed to be a voice for children and parents at the cabinet table, » Horwath said in a statement. « Instead, she’s threatened them. »

Ontario Public Service Employees Union president Warren (Smokey) Thomas said he was appalled by reports of MacLeod’s actions and called for her to step down.

« I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in Lisa MacLeod, » he said in a statement. « It’s unbelievable she would bully others to pay lip service to Doug Ford’s attack on autistic children. »

MacLeod announced last week that in order to clear a backlog of 23,000 children waiting for publicly funded autism therapy, families will get up to $140,000 to pay for treatment, though funding will be subject to annual caps that families and advocates say will fall far short of what’s needed for intensive therapy.

The funding is dependent on age, rather than individual needs. Families will receive a maximum of $140,000 for a child in treatment from the ages of two to 18, also dependent on family income, but advocates say intensive therapy can cost up to $80,000 per year.

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Children’s minister Lisa MacLeod urged to resign over accusation she bullied autism group

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Ontario’s largest public sector union and the NDP education critic are calling on Lisa MacLeod to resign, saying her behaviour toward an autism group was akin to bullying and inappropriate for a cabinet minister.

The Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysts said MacLeod — who is minister of children, community and social services — pressured them to provide a quote in support of changes to the province’s autism program, but without details they refused.

A spokesperson for Lisa MacLeod said the group levelling accusations against her was unwilling to work with the government on changes to the system.
A spokesperson for Lisa MacLeod said the group levelling accusations against her was unwilling to work with the government on changes to the system.  (Chris Young / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO)

They say MacLeod then told the group it would be a “long four years” if they didn’t.

A senior source in MacLeod’s ministry who is familiar with all meetings with ONTABA said different representatives attended the fourth and final meeting, and the tone had changed. The source said the ministry had been led to expect public support from the group.

The source said he “did not recall” MacLeod making such a statement.

A spokesperson for MacLeod said ONTABA was unwilling to work with the government on changes to the system.

On Thursday, Warren (Smokey) Thomas, head of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and New Democrat Marit Stiles said MacLeod should step down.

In a statement, Thomas said “I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in Lisa MacLeod … It’s unbelievable she would bully others to pay lip service to (Premier) Doug Ford’s attack on autistic children.”

On Twitter, Stiles said: “From our most vulnerable children& youth, to women & families fleeing violence, Minister Lisa MacLeod has consistently made decisions that cause them harm. As we head back to Queen’s Park next week, I’m hoping she does the right thing: #ResignLisaMacLeod.”

At a news conference in Woodbridge on Thursday morning, Ford said he had yet to speak to MacLeod about the controversy, but would — in part to ensure reports on the issue are “factual.”

Ford, however, also said he would “never” ask MacLeod to resign. “She’s an absolute all-star … she’s done an incredible job” on a difficult file, he told reporters.

A memo Wednesday to ONTABA members said of the Jan. 29 meeting: “The minister and her staff requested that ONTABA provide a quote of support, without providing full details on the program, and indicated that failure to do so would result in ‘four long years’ for the organization.

“The minister also indicated that if a quote of support was not forthcoming, a communication that behaviour analysts are ‘self-interested’ would be released from her office … In spite of the implied risk, the organization refused.”

One analyst who attended said it was “more akin to meeting with a mob boss than an elected official.”

The rift with ONTABA is part of an escalating division between the Ford government and some in the autism community in the wake of the Progressive Conservatives’ system overhaul, which MacLeod has pledged will make funding more equitable and clear the massive wait list for services within 18 months.

While several service providers and hospitals issued public endorsements of the plan after it was announced, parent support group Autism Ontario — which was praised for supporting the changes by MacLeod — released a statement Tuesday saying the organization “neither proposed nor endorsed” the revamp.

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb

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