Leaders debate in Northern Ontario

The four main party leaders met this afternoon in North Bay for the first debate of the 2022 Ontario Election. Hosted by the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA), the focus was mainly on the various issues facing municipalities in the north: housing affordability, key and critical infrastructure, hydro and rising fuel costs, healthcare access including mental health and addictions, as well as the economy.

Debate Overview

This debate was the first time Liberal Leader, Steven Del Duca, and Premier Doug Ford went head-to-head on the same stage since the former became leader of the Ontario Liberal Party. With the Progressive Conservatives (PC) currently leading in the polls in Northern Ontario at an average of 40% – the Liberals and NDP trailing at 25% and 21% respectively – Doug Ford is looking to expand his northern caucus, eyeing Timmins and Thunder Bay.

The opposition leaders face off with Premier and PC Leader, Doug Ford, critiquing his performance over the past four years and what they’d do to differentiate themselves. However, there was a greater focus on Del Duca and his past record as a Liberal Cabinet Minister, specifically during his tenure as Minister of Transport. He was pressed on key infrastructure projects, critical roads and highway development, or lack thereof, and the previous Wynne government’s move away from the Northlander rail service.

Questions Raised

One of the first questions raised was the issue of short-term rentals (STR), a topic that had not been raised by the press gallery during their election coverage thus far. With the increase in housing prices and shortage of homes available, along with issues from STR companies (e.g. AirBnb, VRBO), municipalities have been introducing short-term rental bans. Both Mike Schreiner of the Greens, and NDP leader, Andrea Horwarth, welcomed the idea of licensing and registration requirements for all STR properties and even called for STR companies them to be banned by municipalities, including those that operate via water lodging (i.e. house boats).

Given that NOMA was hosting the first leaders’ debate during their annual conference, the questions surrounding municipalities, their ability to raise revenue and funding in place if these lack of tools were of importance. It became evident that northern communities are interested in acquiring similar revenue capabilities as the City of Toronto, which falls under separate legislation than Ontario’s other 439 municipalities. Although Ford was unable to give a clear response on giving NOMA members the same deal as Toronto, he diverted to discuss mining, manufacturing jobs, and their recently announced Critical Mineral Strategy, a key part of North Bay PC candidate and current Minister Vic Fedeli’s, plan to make Ontario a key player in electric vehicle (EV) and EV battery production. The opposition leaders all committed to giving municipalities similar treatment to Toronto if elected, although to varying degrees of clarity.

The debate highlighted the health, mental health and addictions issues that are exacerbated in Northern Ontario. With a growing shortage of health care workers, proper infrastructure and beds needed, this was a harrowing discussion. Doug Ford commended his Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Michael Tibollo, for his work providing increased mental health funding over the past few years; Tibollo is currently running for re-election, against Steven Del Duca in Vaughn-Woodbridge.

In Conclusion

If this debate showed anything, it’s that one can anticipate that the next debate, and next several weeks leading into Election Day, will include even more jousting between the leaders, particularly between the rising Del Duca-led Liberals and Ford’s incumbent PC Party.

During the debate, an Ontario Liberal Party spokesperson confirmed that their recently acclaimed Sault Ste. Marie candidate will no longer be running under their banner amidst nomination controversy. All parties have until May 12th to approve and nominate candidates; the Liberals are the only party without candidates in all 124 ridings.

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