TORONTO – Premier Kathleen Wynne will be taking her chequebook as she embarks on a northern tour amid growing political unrest in the region, including the relaunch of the separatist Northern Ontario Party.
Wynne leaves Saturday on a weeklong visit to schools, hospitals, businesses and First Nations from North Bay to Sioux Lookout, with stops in Sudbury, Dryden, Kenora, Fort Frances, Kirkland Lake and nearly a dozen other communities.
She will make a series of funding announcements on health care, infrastructure and other measures that ‘the government said will enhance public services and help accelerate economic growth in the north.
It’s really important the people in the north see me and that they understand that I’m serious about these investments,” Wynne told The Canadian Press on Friday.
“I know it’s important that I go up and talk to folks about what it is we’re doing to build up their infrastructure, schools, hospitals and roads, and to provide opportunities for their kids.”
The Northern Ontario Party, which emerged from the ashes of the old Northern Ontario Heritage Party, was registered with Elections Ontario last week, and says its first goal is to elect 11 candidates to the legislature in 2018.
“We don’t want to get away from Canada, but we want to have a voice in the legislative assembly, and it seems the only way that can ever be done is by getting a referendum vote to become our own province,” said NOP Leader Trevor Holliday.
“Is the party for separation? Yes, if that’s what the people want. It’s all about giving people a voice.”
Wynne said she understands the feelings that lead to movements such as the NOP, especially when the region often gets hit harder than the more populous south by economic changes.
“So there may be some additional frustration because of that,” she said. “Maybe it’s about making sure that their voices need to be heard in southern Ontario, and that’s part of the reason this trip has been in the works for months.”
Northern Ontario isn’t monolithic and doesn’t have the same issues and concerns in every community, added Wynne.
The premier also faces a revived movement underway in Kenora to have that city join Manitoba – similar petitions have circulated in the past – after a local paper mill announced it was closing because of Ontario’s high electricity rates.
Wynne said the government has programs to help businesses and homeowners cope with soaring electricity rates, but admitted it may need to do more.
“I understand that there are businesses that are looking for more relief,” she said. “We need to look at if there are other things that we should be doing.”
Climate change means ice roads are not as accessible for as long as they used to be in remote communities, especially for First Nations people, added Wynne. So the government wants to find out exactly what the local priorities are in the various regions in northern Ontario.
“One of the conversations I want to have with folks is where are the most urgent needs,” she said.
The government also wants to address problems with inter-city bus links in the north, and will look to see if deregulating coach transportation will lead better service, said Wynne.
“There isn’t, I think, the right kind of competition for those routes,” she said. “we also need to look at how are we constraining the transportation industry in terms of what vehicles they can use, how many people they can carry and all of that.”
Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown plans a six-day tour of northern Ontario at the end of the month.
“I am pleased to see that Premier Wynne and her Liberal government have finally noticed that northern Ontario exists, because their record proves that the region has been nothing but an afterthought,” Brown said in a release Friday.