Premier Kathleen Wynne says too many Ontarians are getting left behind by the changing economy – a problem that has seen the fruits of the province's post-recession recovery distributed unevenly and driven her popularity into an extended trough.
In a year-end interview at her Queen's Park office, the Premier suggested that her cratering approval ratings – as low as 13 per cent, according to Forum Research – are about something more complex than high electricity prices, ethics scandals or the controversial privatization of Hydro One.
In 2016, Ontario was ahead of the national average in economic growth, unemployment fell to a six-year low, and Ms. Wynne forged ahead with everything from a massive public-transit expansion to a long-sought deal with Ottawa to expand the Canada Pension Plan.
But the benefits of the province's progress are not reaching everyone, she said, particularly young people and workers in Ontario's industrial heartland.
"Even though we have all these good metrics … there are parts of the province that aren't sharing as evenly in that. There are groups of people who aren't sharing as evenly in that," she said. "There are people who have felt left behind."
Ms. Wynne argued that this same problem contributed to Donald Trump's election as U.S. president, particularly in rust-belt states that share economic histories with Southwestern Ontario. Even as the province's financial, high-tech and advanced manufacturing sectors hum along, the Premier said, some people thrown out of traditional factory jobs have struggled to find an economic foothold.
"When someone moves from a manufacturing job and isn't able to work in the advanced manufacturing sector, for example, or isn't able to make that transition as easily as they thought they might, or their kids haven't found a job yet – those are really hard facts for people to deal with," Ms. Wynne said.
The Premier said that fixing this problem will be the next major file she tackles. With the items on her agenda largely in motion – building infrastructure, bringing in a cap-and-trade system to drive down carbon emissions, increasing pension benefits and wrestling down the deficit – Ms. Wynne said two major education-related policies will form the core of her re-election bid in 2018.
The first will be creating 100,000 more child-care spaces over five years, in a move to make it easier for parents to join the work force.
"We know that there is not enough participation by women, for example, in the work force in the way that they want to be engaged," she said. "So getting our child-care investments right and making sure that we provide the range of options that families need."
The second will be tailoring the education system to match the jobs available. Specifically, Ms. Wynne said, this will involve offering more programs in school for children to learn practical job skills.
"It is about linking our education system in a better way to our labour market and making sure that young people have the exposure that they need in order to make good choices," she said. "That's no small feat. What that means is, looking at how the school day works, looking at how elementary and secondary work, so kids have more experiential opportunities, more hands-on opportunities."
And despite the persistent storm clouds hanging over her re-election efforts, Ms. Wynne insists that she doesn't see her own unpopularity as a barometer of her government's success.
"The plan wasn't about investing in the people of this province and in the infrastructure of this province so that I would be popular," she said. "The plan was to invest in order that we would see economic growth and we would see a province that was better off. That's happening. The plan is working. And my personal popularity is, in a lot of ways, beside the point."