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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne listens to remarks from Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger (not shown) at the opening of the Building Canada Up Summit in Toronto on Wednesday August 6, 2014. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne listens to remarks from Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger (not shown) at the opening of the Building Canada Up Summit in Toronto on Wednesday August 6, 2014. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Wynne’s rural outreach efforts could unravel in face of budget challenges Add to ...

In a year-and-a-half as premier, Kathleen Wynne has probably spent as much time visiting Ontario’s rural regions and its smaller cities as Dalton McGuinty did in nearly a decade. She has backtracked on policies, such as an end to financial support for horse racing, that rankled those communities. Somewhat dubiously, she served as her own agriculture minister.

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In short, Ms. Wynne has made an effort to demonstrate that her Ontario includes more than just Toronto, Ottawa and a few other urban centres, and to ensure the rest of the province doesn’t feel as neglected under her watch as it did under her predecessor’s.

And yet as her government seeks to eliminate its $12.5-billion deficit in three years, there is reason to believe Ms. Wynne is on a collision course with the regions to which she has tried to reach out.

The biggest hint came last month in an interview with Treasury Board President Deb Matthews, the most powerful minister in Ms. Wynne’s cabinet and the one charged with leading the fight to get back to balance.

“I think across government, we’re more and more moving to a population-based system,” Ms. Matthews said on the subject of “rationalizing” program spending. What she meant, it was fairly clear, was that to meet the needs of fast-growing communities without significantly increasing the overall envelope, it would be necessary to reduce or at least freeze spending in areas where stagnant or shrinking populations are currently overserved by comparison.

She didn’t spell out which areas she was talking about, but it’s not difficult to figure that out.

During the past census period, from 2006 to 2011, municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area grew hugely. Milton was the most extreme example, going from 53,889 residents to 84,362 – an increase of 56.5 per cent. Much bigger Brampton increased by 20.8 per cent, bringing it up to 523,911. Those places are both still getting bigger, as are other suburbs.

Meanwhile, much of the province is shrinking. Down in the southwest, Chatham-Kent recorded one of the most significant population losses (4.2 per cent) in the country between censuses. Windsor went down, too, as did Thunder Bay in the north, Brockville in the east, and plenty more; many others flat-lined.

As long as economies of scale are duly taken into account, it’s difficult to argue in theory with the basic premise that funding needs to be reallocated. But that won’t make it any less bitter a pill to swallow for communities that might be asked to make do with less.

As Ms. Matthews noted, the shift is already happening with hospitals, and child care is on the radar. Education might be a particular flashpoint, with the merging of schools in which classrooms are filled partly with empty chairs.

In conversations since that interview, Ms. Wynne’s Liberals have acknowledged both the perceived need to make such adjustments, and the difficulty in acting upon it. While most of their seats are urban and suburban, their thin majority government still includes MPPs from eastern, southwestern and northern Ontario, and they could easily feel hung out to dry.

If the Liberals prove willing and able to withstand that sort of backlash, it may have something to do with another consequence of the population trends.

At some point before the next Ontario election, the province is likely to adopt the new federal riding map so that constituencies at the two levels continue to mirror each other. If so, 11 of 15 new seats will be in the GTA. Much of the rest of the province could see its smaller share of program spending accompanied by less political clout.

Ms. Wynne may not be inclined toward that sort of cold calculation; she appears genuinely concerned about the alienation of whole chunks of the province. But that may not be compatible with returning Ontario to balance, at least as she and her top minister intend to achieve it.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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