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Ontario PC cabinet minister Merrilee Fullerton resigns

Merrilee Fullerton says she is stepping down as the provincial representative for Kanata-Carlteon immediately. Merrilee Fullerton answers questions at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Wednesday, May 5, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Merrilee Fullerton, a longtime cabinet minister in Doug Ford's government, unexpectedly resigned Friday, forcing the premier to name a new minister to the children, community and social services post. 

Fullerton, who shuffled through three cabinet posts and was in charge when thousands died of COVID-19 in Ontario nursing homes, said she was stepping down immediately as minister and member of provincial parliament for the Ottawa-area riding of Kanata-Carleton.

She did not detail why she was leaving. 

Ford announced Friday evening that Michael Parsa would move from his role as associate minister of housing to take over as minister of children, community and social services.

The new associate minister of housing will be Nina Tangri, who served as an associate minister in Ford's first government but stayed out of cabinet contention after the 2022 election to make an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the job of Speaker.

Fullerton, a family physician, left medicine for politics in the lead-up to the 2018 election when she won her seat and won again, handily, in 2022. 

"A strong sense of duty brought me to politics after decades as a family physician serving my community, to continue my work toward solutions that would address the shortcomings of our health-care system and improve health services for individuals," she wrote in her resignation letter to Ford.

"To serve the people of this province has been a profound honour." 

Fullerton's first role in cabinet was as minister of colleges, training and universities, a post she held for one year.

In June 2019, she was named minister of long-term care, a file she held through the early days of the pandemic. 

She was heavily criticized for the havoc COVID-19 wrought on long-term care – 3,794 nursing home residents had died from the virus by the time she was shuffled out of the role in June 2021, and thousands more were infected. Five nursing homes were hit so bad that the province called the army in to help.

A scathing report later found the neglected long-term care sector was unprepared for a pandemic.

In the 2021 cabinet shuffle, Fullerton was named minister of children, community and social services, a role that comes with stickhandling highly sensitive files including autism services for children and the Ontario Disability Support Program.

Fullerton drew the ire of families of children with autism as the rollout of a new program that began under the previous minister was slow and opaque.

Ontario was unable to reach its target of providing funding for core autism therapies to 8,000 families by the end of fall 2022, though it wouldn't say by how much.

Since then, the government removed updates from its website on the number of children registered in the Ontario Autism Program and how many had received interim funding, and refused to publicly divulge the number of children receiving government-funded therapy in response to media requests.

Meanwhile, the Ontario Autism Coalition complained that Fullerton had not meaningfully met with them since taking over the ministry and did not hold a single press conference to publicly discuss or update the program.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2023. 

Liam Casey and Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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