Laryssa Waler Hetmanczuk on provincial politics, her job and private life

Laryssa Waler Hetmanczuk

Yuri Bilinsky, New Pathway – Ukrainian News.

Laryssa Waler Hetmanczuk is the Executive director of communications for Premier of Ontario. Many Ukrainian Canadians know Waler for her involvement in numerous community organizations. Many also know her for her involvement in politics, with Conservative parties and politicians at the federal and provincial levels. She worked in Caucus Services for Prime Minister Steven Harper, as a press secretary for Tony Clement when he was Minister of Health and Minister of Industry, and as a press secretary for Tim Hudak, the leader of the PC party in Ontario. She also worked as a policy advisor for the OLG corporation. Just before the last provincial election, she managed the Rod Phillips campaign in Ajax. When Philips won the election and became MPP, Premier Ford asked Waler if she could work with him.

NP-UN spoke with Waler to find more about her job as Doug Ford’s spokesperson and her personal history.

Your government gets criticized a lot in the Canadian media. Do you think that the media is doing all they should do in terms of bringing Ontario government’s messages across to the people?

I think it’s our job to get the message across. We have a lot of technology available to us now like video, social media, emails, phone calls, events to get our message across to the people. I think media has their own job. I get along very well with the media on a personal level. And when I disagree with how they cover a story I tell them, and we can have a respectful conversation. But I understand that they have a job and they understand that I have a job.

What feedback are you getting from the people? I listened to Doug Ford’s interview on Radio Newstalk 1010 in Toronto in October and he was very well received, the feedback after the interview was quite positive.

I didn’t know Doug Ford very well before I came to work for him, I only knew him from the media. And when I met him, I was surprised – he is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. When we go outside of Toronto, people pull over their cars to give him a hug, he can’t walk through the crowd without people shaking his hand and telling him that he is doing a great job. The premier is so accessible, and people feel so familiar to him, so they don’t hold back how they feel. He talks like a normal person, he thinks like a normal person, he often says what a lot of people are thinking, he sees a lot of issues from a very regular, practical point of view. And I think a lot of people, especially outside of Toronto, appreciate that.

It seems as if Doug Ford has changed somewhat and become softer since he was elected. Do you have the same impression?

To me, the premier I met on day one hasn’t changed. We have had to make a lot of big decisions in the first year, because we’ve had a lot of challenges and everybody was growing into their roles. But since the first day I met him, he cared about normal people. And he cares about what people in Tim Hortons think way more than what the people in academia or what the pundits think. When you see him, he’ll always ask you how you are feeling, about your family and your kids. The media says that there’s a big change and I’ve always seen the same guy.

There is a lot of talk about the “Ford effect” that prevented the federal conservatives from winning the last election. What do you think about that?

The prime minister used premier’s name, but premier has said that that’s politics. We’re focused on Ontario where we have a lot of work to do. The fact is we increased education spending by $1.2 billion and increased health care spending by $1.9 billion over what the liberals are spending. And if anybody wants to say we cut funding to the education and healthcare, it’s just not true. It’s our job to get that message out but we made a concerted effort during the election to stay out of it and let them have their own election. There’s almost no example in Canada’s history where a premier would campaign with a candidate for prime minister except for Kathleen Wynne during the previous election. Canadians know that healthcare and education are provincial responsibilities. And if you have federal candidates campaigning on healthcare and education you should probably think twice about it. But that’s not our decision to make. My sister Krystina Waler was a candidate in St. Catharines and when we were knocking on doors on weekends, these issues never came up. But that’s maybe because it’s outside of Toronto. Some were surprised when Doug Ford was so open and willing to work with Justin Trudeau after the election, but we always said we would work with him. And we are – the prime minister endorsed our transit plan during the election.

Tell us more about the Ontario government’s transit plan.

We’ve announced $28.5 billion in transit investment in the GTA, it’s the biggest transit project in Canada, ever. The federal government has said they’re going to come to the table, and the mayors have endorsed it too. Doug Ford has always been incredibly passionate about transit. Especially, getting the Toronto suburbs and all of Ontario linked to the GTA transit system. There are so many services in Ontario that are in Toronto and when you come to Toronto, you won’t have to drive to the downtown. I am from St. Catharines originally and being able to get on the GO train and come to Toronto for a doctor’s appointment is now a huge deal. This investment also involves all the supporting industries – the timber industry’s involvement in building the subway is huge. This project will benefit the whole province.

In the first 1.5 years of this government, where have you made the biggest progress?

Jobs is the big one. Under Kathleen Wynne, we lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs. Since we came into power, we’ve brought in 256,200 net new jobs overall. Doug Ford is a practical guy and a business guy, he looks at practical things, like, how can we reduce red tape to get the job done. If there’s a regulatory burden, like the same standard or application that you have to fill out, provincially and federally, we say, just do the federal one, you don’t have to do it twice. An example from Bill 148 [Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act]: for refrigerated storages there used to be a rule to have an engineer on site 24 hours a day, even at night when nobody was working there. It was incredibly expensive and there was really no need for it. You don’t have to do that anymore but it doesn’t mean that the engineers will lose their jobs, they just don’t have to work overnight anymore. And businesses now have money to hire more people they actually need.

How is the court case against the federal government going about the carbon tax?

I cannot really comment on the court case. But the reason we’re fighting the carbon tax, is because we can achieve our emission targets without it. For the carbon tax to work, it has to make everything more expensive – gas could be over $1.60/litre, hydro bills would have to be even more expensive. We have an environment plan that focuses on incentivizing businesses to do well, focuses on technology.

You come from a family that is very active in the Ukrainian Canadian community, you yourself are very involved.

Yes. I’ve been involved closely in the Ukrainian Canadian Professional and Business Association, Canada-Ukraine Foundation, PLAST, the church I grew up, St George’s orthodox church in St. Catharines. When I started this job, I stepped back from many of those engagements. I do as much as I can now, but I just don’t have time to do as much as I used to.

Your job must be demanding.

I always work. Today [Saturday], the premier was at three different events and I am responsible for social media and all the communications, I need to make sure that there is no media issue. The government never stops.

Is Doug Ford a demanding boss?

No. He works really hard and he expects you to work hard. But he’s also very cognizant of the fact that I have two small children. And when he calls, he will always ask if now is a good time. It’s a really busy job. In this kind of job, you work really hard for years, if you’re lucky. My husband Taras is very supportive. And he is a very good father as well, he makes lunches in the morning and he cooks more than I do.

Laryssa Waler Hetmanczuk with husband Taras and sons Nicholas and Maksym                  Photo: Natalie Lalka Photography