by Isabel Mosseler

Published April 4, 2020

MPP John Vanthof, Timiskaming-Cochrane, has a provincial riding going from West Nipissing to Cochrane, with constituents in three different health unit areas. As of April 1, those three health units had announced a total of 14 positive COVID-19 cases, with numbers expected to rise. On top of facing this growing crisis, Vanthof has been mourning the loss of his mother Georgina, who passed away on March 20th, and is in social isolation at his home in Earlton. Despite all of this, he continues to make himself available to his constituents.

His personal circumstances makes him particularly sympathetic to families who can’t be with their elderly loved ones in long-term care facilities, now closed because of the outbreak. “I was very fortunate, I got to be with my mom when she passed. She was in a nursing home. If you look at what’s happening across the country, a lot of people, well, you know…” Vanthof was referencing incidents where family members could not be with their elders as they died. “I got to be with her, we couldn’t have a funeral because of the restrictions, but our family was there. Compared to what other people are going through across the province and the country, we are fortunate.”

As a community leader, Vanthof echoes the message of other public officials. “Our biggest tell is ‘Stay Home!’ This is a serious issue, we are not immune. Just because we live in an area where there’s lots of space and fresh air, we are not immune. Stay home and stay safe. Our offices are closed to the public but we are working, so if you have any questions…  With the essential business list, with the border closure at Abitibi-Témiscamingue, we are fielding lots of questions and we’ll get back with the answer as soon as we have it. Don’t feel shy to call or email.”

Vanthof understands the reasoning behind the recent Quebec-Ontario border closure: they have a spike of COVID-19 on the Quebec side and they are worried about people coming from other areas into their areas. “We have the same issues in West Nipissing, and below in the French River. People might be coming to their cottages. A lot of people aren’t working right now, and the economy is struggling. I don’t blame them; they want to come to a place where they can enjoy themselves… But if we have the same issues as some other parts of the country are having… Our healthcare in rural Ontario might not be able to handle such an emergency situation.”

With an influx of people fleeing to their rural properties, it has also put added pressures on grocery stores and other services. “Usually it’s the May 24 weekend when people come to their cottage… I have a cottage too and I don’t blame people for wanting to do this. But we’re trying to put a dent in the pandemic and keep the numbers as low as possible and moving around is not a good idea right now. Moving to places that, quite frankly, aren’t ready for you not only on the grocery front but on the healthcare front [isn’t wise]. If it hits our area, no-one can predict this; we will run out of resources.”

At the local level, when people come to a community on that basis, they also might not have a personal investment in the community and, consequently, may fail to take the same care and consideration as people who have family in the area. “There’s always, in every population, people who adopt [the procedures] and get the message early, and there’s always people, quite frankly, who never seem to get the message. We all have to do our best to make sure the people who don’t get the message – get the message.” Vanthof points out the common stages of realization, from thinking it’s an illness that primarily affects older people, to understanding that everyone is at risk. “It’s everyone’s problem, and everyone’s solution. We can all contribute to the solution.”

As a member of the provincial legislature under these conditions, Vanthof spends a lot of time on his cell phone. His staff operates from home except for one staff person at the office. “We normally do a lot of foot traffic, and we’re not doing that now… For the first time since I’ve been an MPP, we’ve had caucus teleconferences, and teleconference briefings with ministers. I much prefer to meet with people in person, but if it’s not possible we make do… People need answers and people need services. Our office has become a clearing house. When people call. they don’t care if it’s municipal, provincial or federal. (…) We will provide an answer or provide a place where you can get an answer.”

The Vanhofs are also bunkered down. “My wife is a waitress at a restaurant; the restaurant is only opening for takeout; they don’t need a waitress so my wife is home. I’m home. We haven’t spent so much time together in a long time!” he laughs. “We’re still talking to each other so we’re fine.”

As a former dairy farmer, Vanthof also sees the benefits of living in an agricultural area of the province. “We have a sound agricultural province. The provincial food supply is stable. In the last little while, there has been a stocking shortage but that is because people’s buying habits have changed. Yes, some people are hoarding, but everyone has gotten more stock on their shelves as COVID-19 became an issue.”   There hasn’t been a lot of hoarding in West Nipissing, just a matter of everyone going in to get supplies for a lockdown. That’s not hoarding, that’s what people have been told to do – prepare a 30-day supply. “It does change buying habits. I was a dairy farmer and heavily involved in the industry. People have contacted me at times that there isn’t milk on the shelves. … There’s milk there but the dairy sector is designed to provide so much milk per day, based on people’s buying habits. When buying habits change, it will take a couple of days for the system to react. We are very fortunate to live in a part of northern Ontario that has a very strong agricultural base, and that will be important going forward. (…) It’s an industry that tends to survive. The fact we have lots of agriculture in West Nipissing and Timiskaming, and now Cochrane as well, it bodes well that we will bounce back quicker than if we were a single-industry town.”

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