Taking It To The Street

Finally, Northern Ontario Gets Some Liberal Attention


by Susanna Kelley

Susanna KelleyIt's been a very long time - much too long - coming.

And it seems to have taken the resignation of Dalton McGuinty as Liberal leader for his party to give some serious, badly needed attention to Northern Ontario.

This weekend all the Liberal leadership candidates gathered in Thunder Bay for the second of seven debates before the January 25-27 convention that will make one of them leader and Premier.

The North is important in this debate for several reasons.

First, with none of the candidates coming from the region, the 160 delegates coming from the 10 ridings are open territory when it comes to attracting support at the January 25-27 Liberal leadership convention in Toronto.

Secondly, the candidates know the Liberal party is vulnerable, to say the least, in the area.

All the candidates seem to be quite serious, and sincere, about trying to repair the broken relationship between the Liberals and the North - especially the Northwest.

All are putting special effort into crafting policies to help bring the North back economically and tackle the extremely difficult social issues in that part of the province.

And well they should. 

For it was their party that stood by idly as the forestry industry collapsed in Northwestern Ontario.

While Mr. McGuinty was handing out billions to bail out the southern Ontario auto sector to save it from economic elimination during the recent recession, Northerners accused him of watching from the sidelines as over 60 mills shut down, one after another, in the North.

The Northern forestry and mining companies and their employees at that time blamed the government's high electricity prices.

Mr. McGuinty blamed a high Canadian dollar.

Others blame free trade, which made cheaper wood more available from other countries, some with warmer climates that could grow trees faster than Canada. 

It made no sense, say some Liberals still, to prop up small mills that were unsustainable.

Campaigns by mayors all across the North for a lower hydro rate were totally ignored until 2010.

Whole towns  were wiped out. Communities crushed. Families forced to pull up stakes and move.

Belatedly, in 2010, the government brought in a lower electricity rate for Northern Ontario's largest industrial users.

Liberals point out that money was spent on colleges, a medical school, an architectural school, roads and bridges.

But some now admit the government fell down on the economic development front.

Fortunately, for Northeastern Ontario, where mining is king, high commodity prices meant it eventually began to boom.

But many agree the government hasn't spent enough on the new transportation infrastructure necessary for prosperity.

The government announced it was divesting itself of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC), cancelling all freight and refurbishment services and cancelling the Toronto to Cochrane passenger run. That after ONTC lost a bid for a $120 million contract to an out of province Quebec firm for refurbishing GO Transit coaches.

There's also been a lag in providing electricity distribution to the Ring of Fire, which holds such promise for mining jobs for aboriginals from Attawapiskat and other reserves in the James Bay area as well as  other Northerners.

What there is consensus on, at this point, is the serious political fallout from all this.

It's evident in the attention being paid to the North by the leadership candidates that the party has ignored a huge part of Ontario to its peril. 

Seats are in jeopardy - and that's the last thing a new Premier of a minority Liberal government can afford going into the next election. 

The first sign of vulnerability was the federal election of 2006, when Liberal Ken Boshcoff barely squeaked back in by less than 800 votes in the riding of Thunder Bay-Superior North.

Next, in an unmistakable display of Northern anger in the 2007 provincial election, the Liberals' senior political minister in charge of Northern Ontario, David Ramsay hung on by only a few hundred votes.

Try as he might, Ramsay had not been able to get "the centre" to act on the forestry collapse in the North.

In 2008, federal Liberal Boshcoff was knocked off by the NDP.

In 2011, provincial Liberal Mike Brown lost Algoma-Manitoulin to the NDP.

The message is clear: unless the Liberals clean up their act in Northern Ontario, they're on a one-way ticket out of town.

Suddenly, the North is on everyone's radar.

Here's what the candidates are offering:

Glenn Murray:  Saying the North is totally different from southern Ontario, Mr. Murray has perhaps the most intriguing policy.  He's called for a regional government for the North with powers to set taxes, electricity rates, transportation policy and job-training programs.

Kathleen Wynne:  Ms. Wynne's priorities include developing the Ring of Fire, better aboriginal education, building more roads and bridges, youth internships and co-op placements to battle youth unemployment and a special cabinet committee on the North.

Charles Sousa: Mr. Sousa promises continued support for the mining industry and better transportation systems in the North.

Sandra Pupatello:  In her "Vision for the North" released strategically the day before the debate Ms. Pupatello promises to make cheaper electricity for large northern industrial consumers permanent; help mills modernize; develop infrastructure to support the Ring of Fire; and invest more in out-of-hospital health care.

Eric Hoskins:  Mr. Hoskins would provide incentives to hire Northern Ontario workers, especially young people; training tax credits; and help for small and medium sized businesses in the North.

Harinder Takar:  Mr. Takar promises to build a new rail line to the Ring of Fire; bring in a First Nations and Metis Bill of Rights; set up a marketing fund to attract film makers to the North; and forgive the debt of 100 medical graduates each year if they agree to serve in the Northern communities.

Gerard Kennedy:  Mr. Kennedy has said he would review the decision to shut down the ONTC; he would also consider mandating that a percentage of the GDP generated in the North must stay in the North.

All of this long overdue attention to one of Ontario's under-developed jewels - Northern Ontario - is very welcome.

The big question, however, will be whether the new Liberal leader will remember all this when they begin to govern, and whether the Northern voters believe them.

You can find Susanna here: 

About Susanna Kelley

Susanna Kelley is Editor-in-Chief and Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for Ontario News Watch. A veteran political and investigative reporter, documentary-maker, host and media commentator, Susanna oversees and has final editorial control over all news production at Ontario News Watch. Susanna has reported for the CBC, the Canadian Press and served as Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for TVOntario for 13 years. She has also hosted a number of documentaries for CBC’s The Current, CBC Radio News and TVOntario’s Studio 2. Passionately dedicated to excellence in political journalism, and having covered both Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park, Susanna believes quality political reporting is essential to a healthy democracy. You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley
Posted date : December 10, 2012

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