COCA Corner: Moving our industry forward in Ontario 

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By Ian Cunningham

Executive Director, Council of Ontario Construction Associations (COCA)

From family gatherings to construction projects, the activities we took for granted came to a sudden halt at one point or another over the last 16 months. In our personal and professional lives, this has been a time we’ll never forget.

Thankfully, it appears Ontario has weathered the worst of the pandemic storm. Covid-19 case counts have dropped dramatically, we’re exceeding vaccination targets, and our economy and community spaces are opening up again. But with Delta and other new variants of the virus circulating, we need to remain vigilant.

Throughout the past year, COCA has focused on protecting our people, our industry and our economy from the impacts of Covid-19, and it’s an issue that will be on our radar for the foreseeable future. COCA acts as a bridge between our members and Queen’s Park, ensuring that provincial laws, regulations and policies allow the ICI construction industry to keep moving forward—in good times and in bad.

The Council of Ontario Construction Associations (COCA) is a federation of 29 industrial, commercial, institutional and heavy civil construction associations across Ontario. Our members represent more than 10,000 construction businesses and more than 400,000 employees.

The realities of the pandemic—the extra costs, uncertainty and challenges it has created for construction and many other industries—have dominated the dialogue this past year. First and foremost, we communicated the construction industry’s strong record of keeping worksites and workers safe during the pandemic; workplace transmissions of Covid-19 on construction sites were minimal. The government heard us—most of the time—but for unknown reasons chose to include commercial construction in the most recent provincial shutdown.

Whenever the government changed course, we made it a priority to ensure that members understood which types of construction could continue, which types had to stop, and any special precautions that had to be taken.

Throughout these turbulent times, our work on other key issues continued. For example:

  • Pre-budget submission: COCA recommended relief for contractors from pandemic related delay claims and unanticipated costs, strengthening the province’s workers’ compensation system, investments in public infrastructure maintenance and expansion, clarity and fairness in Community Benefits clauses and the development of a new skilled trades and apprenticeship system.
  • Bill 238: We recommended that the maximum insurable earnings ceiling for both the payment of premiums and payment of claims must be the same, and be increased by 2% from the previous year. Despite our strong argument, Bill 238 was passed into law without amendment.
  • Sherrard Expert Panel on the Skilled Trades: During the phase 2 consultations, COCA’s detailed submission addressed three issues: i) criteria and process for prescribing a trade and deprescribing a trade; ii) criteria and process for classifying a trade as compulsory and declassifying a trade as compulsory; iii) considerations for complimentary or wrap-around training and professional development, beyond the requirements of the apprenticeship training.
  • Working at Heights program review: COCA made a detailed submission to the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, and endorsed the submission made by a joint working group of the construction and electrical utilities section 21 committees on which several COCA members participated.
  • First Aid regulation: COCA supported the transfer of this regulation out of the Workers Safety and Insurance Act and into the Occupational Health and Safety Act, and advised the government on some of the details.
  • WSIB funding policy: Now that the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board’s unfunded liability has been eliminated, COCA recommended updating the WSIA to require the provincial workers compensation scheme be 100% funded on a sufficiency basis and WSIB funding to fall within a corridor of 105% to 115% on a sufficiency basis.
  • Occupational exposure limits: COCA supported the Ontario Mining Association’s submission to the MLTSD opposing proposed reductions to the occupational exposure limits for silica and sulphur dioxide.
  • Construction Act: We maintained a list of glitches in the Construction Act which have become apparent through our industry’s experience with this new statute.
  • Ontario Dispute Adjudication for Construction Contracts: We kept members apprised of the industry’s experience with the new payment regime and disputes with the ODACC.
  • Ministry of Transportation: We questioned Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney about her ministry’s practice of contracting out of the provisions of the Construction Act, a statute which she played a role in implementing when she previously served as Attorney General.

 Enbridge Line 5: At the federal level, we wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to add our voice to those oppose the Governor of Michigan’s pledge to shut down Line 5, which provides much of Ontario’s energy supply.

The ICI construction industry was one of the few in Ontario to see growth in 2020. The industry’s GDP increased by 3.6% last year to reach $8.9 billion or 1.3% of provincial GDP.

In its 2021 budget, the Ontario government committed to investing $145.4 billion in infrastructure (transit, highways, schools, hospitals and broadband), including $16.9 billion in 2021-22, as well as $288.2 million in its Skilled Trades Strategy in 2021-22.

Beyond the pandemic, tragic events in Canada and the U.S. over the past year made us more aware of the reality of systemic racism and our collective responsibility to eradicate it. Several of our member organizations and the companies they represent took action to create more diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations. COCA published an anti-racism toolkit, and encouraged our member associations to adopt any or all of it. You can view the toolkit at www.coca.on.ca/anti-racism.

In other association news, we welcomed Romeo Milano of Safetech Environmental, as COCA’s new Chair. Romeo represents the Toronto Construction Association on the COCA Board. We’re also pleased to have the Barrie Construction Association as a valued COCA member and ally as we stand strong and united on the critical issues facing our industry. The BCA is extremely well represented by your president, Blair Chalmers of Rutherford Contracting, who brings a valuable perspective to the table.

One of the silver linings in the pandemic has been finding new and productive ways to communicate and do business. We now have a unique opportunity to hit the reset button and move forward in a way that combines the best of remote work and virtual meetings with traditional offices and in-person meetings. It might mean a little less time on the road and more time with our friends and family, or more time to plan that next big construction project. Let’s make the most of this new-found perspective as we head into our new normal.