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Horwath uses old-school populist charm in Northern Ontario

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath tours the New Liskeard fall fair with local NDP candidate John Vanthof (left).

Anna Mehler Paperny / The Globe and Mail/Anna Mehler Paperny / The Globe and Mail

Andrea Horwath rode a horse-drawn carriage, gave out ribbons for equestrian style and pressed flesh from one end of a stable-smelling, candy apple-hawking fairground to another to wrap up her populist push in Ontario's contested Northern ridings.

The NDP leader finished her two-day, 3,200-kilometre blitz of Northern Ontario at New Liskeard's fall fair, touring the grounds with local candidate John Vanthof.

Throughout the tour, she endeavoured to woo voters through their most pocketbook-conscious sensibilities: She talked gas prices and hydro bills in impromptu coffee-shop stops, and her mantra of fighting for "everyday folks" took on an almost Churchill-esque tone.

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"I'll fight for families in North Bay and in Wawa; in Elliott Lake, in Thunder Bay; in New Liskeard and in Timmins and all across the North," was a line added to her stump speech just this weekend.

Her policy statements matched: She vowed once again to go back on a deal with a Quebec company in order to placate its Ontarian counterpart. And, standing on a wooden platform overlooking a vista of Temagami Provincial Park, promised to eliminate walk-in and vehicle-permit fees for day-trippers to Ontario's provincial parks – taking about $7-million a year from parks' coffers, which she promised to replenish.

"It's not a whole lot," she conceded, "but it really shows that we're trying to give families a chance to have a life that's a little more affordable – so they can enter a provincial asset, something that we all own, and enjoy it without having to pay a fee."

High-minded, abstract political ideals they're not. But in a region where hairsbreadth and incumbent-less races put multiple seats up for grabs, a populist play for voter discontent, promising immediate gratification, could pay off in votes.

It's certainly worked for New Liskeard resident Ken Ellerton. The machinist vowed to vote for "whoever takes the tax off the heating bill."

Others, however, could be trickier to convince.

Steve Sears, who was at the New Liskeard Fair with his wife Penny and their five- and six-year-old daughters, knows the North's doctor shortage firsthand: He's a family physician.

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But he doesn't think creating an incentive for medical students to study in the North (by eliminating the debt of med students who go North, as Ms. Horwath proposes) is a cure-all.

"There aren't enough bodies" graduating from medical school, period, he says – a problem traced to the province's decision to cull med school spaces in the mid-1990s. And as someone trying to work in a still not-quite-implemented Local Health Integration Unit, he's skeptical of promises by both the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives to abolish the system altogether.

"Probably the most frustrating thing, from the medical and education perspective, is you can't plan either one of those things over a four-year time frame," he said. "You really need to have somebody that has a much longer vision and is willing to carry out a much longer vision before you can say it doesn't work."

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