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The party leaders of the four major parties in Ontario’s election – Doug Ford (Progressive Conservative), Andrea Horwath (NDP), Steven Del Duca (Liberal) and Mike Schreiner (Green) – are in North Bay for the first of two debates before the province’s June 2 election.

Highlights from the Ontario leaders debate

2:29 p.m.

Closing remarks from each party leader

Jeff Gray: To sum up the closing statements –

Schreiner: North can lead with green jobs.

Horwath: Promises to “fix” northern health care and mental health, accuses Ford of favouring his “buddies,” a common theme.

Ford: Hits his usual slogans, says other parties mean “more excuses, more delays” and more taxes, while PCs will build highways, keep costs down – also mentions the issue of broadband, a major issue in rural areas, and the Ring of Fire.

Del Duca: Hits personal notes, talks of wife, daughters, aging immigrant parents, and lists Liberal education and home care promises.

Overall they each performed much as they have on the campaign stump and in their pressers at Queen’s Park. I didn’t see any “knockout punches.”

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Dustin Cook/The Globe and Mail

Columnist Marcus Gee: More highways, more health care, more doctors and firefighters, more addiction-rehab beds, a revived rail service, better snowplowing and road repair. There were lots and lots of promises in this debate, and not a whisper about how to pay for them. Voters face a choice among four parties of Big Government in this election.

2:05 p.m.

On mental health and addiction in the north

Jeff Gray: Last question is about homelessness and mental health and addictions, a key concern in the North. Leaders are asked if they will set up a “Northern centre of excellence” in mental health and addictions.

Ford alludes to the addiction issues in his own family and lists the government’s investments in mental health and addiction treatment beds. Horwath points out Ford capped the number of supervised injection sites, as Ford muttered: “That’s not true.” (Narrator: It is true.)

On health care, Del Duca touts his free tuition for doctors and nurses who agree to practice in the North. Horwath mentions her mental health plan, says health sector in the North has been begging for more health care and attention, highlights the problem with grants for people who need to travel for treatment, blames both Del Duca and Ford for failing to fix Northern health care. Ford says the other parties would be a “disaster.”

Columnist Marcus Gee: I’ve seen the opioids crisis in the North up close, in Sudbury, Timmins and Thunder Bay. A mother in Sudbury set up a field of crosses at a big intersection to memorialize those who have died. It filled up in days. It’s devastating for these communities, which often lack the proximity and quality of health care you see in the South.

1:58 p.m.

On the handling of COVID-19 in Ontario

Dustin Cook: Ford is asked how he would rate his government’s performance in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. He doesn’t directly address the question, but thanks first responders and argues the province didn’t have a good pandemic preparedness strategy in place when he took office. Ford says he “went after President Trump like no one went after him because he cut us off from 3M” which was a major mask supplier at the outset of the pandemic.

Jeff Gray: Schreiner goes right at Ford, mentioning how he reopened the province before the third wave in 2021 despite warnings it would be a “disaster” and says he stopped following the science. Horwath is the first to actually acknowledge the many deaths from COVID-19.

1:55 p.m.

On the issue of recruiting and certifying firefighters

Jeff Gray: Onto the difficulty to recruit firefighters and changes to firefighter certification issues, a question from the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities, and an issue that you never hear about down here in Toronto, for sure.

Vague answer from Del Duca. Ford smartly thanks the first responders, tries to say the Liberals took a “downtown Toronto approach” to firefighter certification. Horwath explains how many Northern municipalities rely totally on volunteer firefighters. Schreiner also responds with details, says he fought Ford’s move to close firefighter college in Gravenhurst. And pivots to forest fires, saying last summer they consumed an area in the size of the GTA.

Del Duca really tries to take a calm tone here on the pandemic, rather than sniping. Horwath, who trails him in the polls, jumps in to tell him his Liberal government failed to learn from SARS and left long-term care “on its knees.” Del Duca says these issues “should go beyond partisan politics.”

Columnist Marcus Gee: The criticisms of Ford over his government’s performance in the pandemic ring a little hollow at this stage of the game. Del Duca seems to realize this when he says we should be looking forward instead of back. He manages to at least sound statesmanlike here.

1:40 p.m.

On housing affordability in the north

Jeff Gray: Now onto housing, such a key issue. Parties have all made it a focus, all have various plans and promises, with some key differences that probably will be lost a bit in this debate format.

For example, Del Duca’s plan to ease zoning rules would only allow for two storeys, three units, “as-of-right” across the province – the government’s task force called for four storeys. Ford hit his usual notes about municipalities needing to approve building faster.

Roads, and the state of highways and the way they are maintained in the winter, are a huge issue in the North. Del Duca lists off the highways he would widen, and his plan to offer a winter tire tax credit. Ford says he has driven on some of these roads, and they are “terrifying,” and lists them off – and then pivots to Del Duca, telling him he “failed” as transportation minister on snow clearing, earning applause.

Dustin Cook: The crowd here in North Bay is getting riled up about the discussion on the Northlander train service, which was cancelled under the Liberal government in 2012. The PC government pledged to bring it back and it is also a platform commitment for the NDP and Liberals.

Jeff Gray: Del Duca, under fire for that Northlander says Ford failed to fix Northern highways, and pivots to Highway 413, saying its $10-billion for the Toronto area, saying it would reward “a select and wealthy few” and that he would use the money for schools.

It’s an interesting judo use of Ford’s highway message track. Ford, on his back foot, goes back to the Northlander, which he has promised to restore. Horwath jumps in, calls the roads a “death trap” in the North. “They left a wreck back there in Northern Ontario,” Horwath said of the Liberal government. It’s a pile on now.

Columnist Marcus Gee: The leaders have been falling all over each other promising the moon and the stars to the North. They would all build and expand and clear the highways, replace the money-losing Northland rail route, help the North extract and sell its resources – and so on and so on. It makes it awfully hard for a viewer to see any real difference among them.

1:35 p.m.

On affordability in the region

Jeff Gray: And here we go: Ford goes at Del Duca for proposal to share mining tax with municipalities, pivots to his talking points about linking mining to growing industry for electric vehicles. Horwath targets Del Duca, too, says he had 15 years to address the issue. They strayed quite a bit from the question, which was about “affordability.” Horwath brings it back to her promises about minimum wage, dental care, and the Alstom transit plant in Thunder Bay.

Dustin Cook: In the open debate on this question, Ford and Del Duca immediately trade barbs about raising taxes and Horwath quickly interrupts to say Del Duca and his Liberal party had 15 years in government to address rising taxes and affordability issues in Northern Ontario.

The second question is about the impact of short-term rentals and floating accommodations on Northern municipalities (AirBnB as an example). Horwath said the NDP have a plan to license short-term rentals across the province and that there would be consequences for disorder (but doesn’t specify further). Schreiner pitches a registry to regulate short-term vacation rentals and ensure there are enough homes for people who work and have jobs in the north.

Jeff Gray: Schreiner again shows that he has perhaps the best grasp of policy details – and ability to think on his feet – of all the leaders, concisely spelling out his plan to regulate short-term rentals.

Dustin Cook: Del Duca says a Liberal government would work closely with municipalities and ensure communities are being preserved but also ensure there is access to short-term accommodations. Ford is last to respond to this question.

Jeff Gray: Ford is also at his best here, displaying his “Premier Dad” persona from early in the pandemic, asking Airbnb partiers to behave themselves and refrain from “cartwheels.” Reminds me of his rants against price gouging and anti-mask “yahoos.”

Columnist Marcus Gee: Ford is coming across as the most revved up and forceful of the group. Del Duca a bit policy-wonkish. Horwath is a bit yesterday’s news. This is her fourth bid to lead her party to power.

1:20 p.m.

On revenue tools for municipalities in the north

Jeff Gray: The first question is a bit of a technical one: the moderator asks whether Northern municipalities should have the same revenue tools – including a land-transfer tax – that Toronto is unique in having. Other municipalities have eyed Toronto’s powers for a while.

Ford knocks it away, saying he would never support raising taxes. Horwath says she would “upload” some municipal costs to province. Schreiner says Greens would give municipalities the same powers, would update the property tax system. Del Duca says the government would have a “conversation” with municipalities and federal government about funding. He says he would “undo the damage” done by the Mike Harris Progressive Conservative government’s “downloading” of various roads and other infrastructure. Del Duca goes at Ford, says he has not done enough in four years: “Spin isn’t going to move this province forward.”

Columnist Marcus Gee: Everyone is accusing everyone else of ignoring Northern Ontario – which in fact gets plenty of attention from most governments because winning seats there matters.

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PC leader Doug Ford makes a point during the first debate of the Ontario election in North Bay, Ontario on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner look on.Gino Donato/The Canadian Press

1:10 p.m.

Opening remarks reiterate talking points

Jeff Gray: The candidates’ opening statements mostly repeat their talking points: Del Duca: education, health care, “fully costed” platform. Ford: Saying yes, building highways, Ring of Fire. But Horwath uses her introduction to take square aim at Ford, saying it’s time to “fix the things that are broken.” Schreiner focuses on climate crisis, but mentions housing as well.

Columnist Marcus Gee: In his opening remarks, Ford is very much selling himself as a “builder,” not a cost-cutter as of old. “I’ll never support increasing taxes,” he says.

1:00 p.m.

Party leaders to answer five questions

Dustin Cook: The debate moderator, CBC’s Markus Schwabe, provides an overview of the debate format: Party leaders will have two minutes to respond to five questions that were created through discussions with municipalities. There will then be an open discussion between party leaders related to each of the questions.

12:55 p.m.

Leaders arrive at the Capitol Centre

Dustin Cook: All four party leaders have arrived at the Capitol Centre (vehicles for Ford and Del Duca not pictured) as have the delegates from the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities conference. The debate is scheduled for an hour and a half followed by questions from reporters.

Open this photo in gallery:

Dustin Cook/The Globe and Mail

Open this photo in gallery:

Dustin Cook/The Globe and Mail

Outside, CUPE union members have gathered with signs saying “I’m voting for health care” while supporters of Doug Ford are chanting his line, “Get it done.”

12:00 p.m.

What to expect in the northern Ontario leaders debate

Jeff Gray: Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s live blog of the Northern Ontario party leaders debate.

I’m Jeff Gray, a Queen’s Park report and I’m watching the debate from Toronto. My colleague, Dustin Cook (also a Queen’s Park reporter) is in person at Capitol Centre in North Bay.

This debate is the first time that PC Leader Doug Ford, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca and Green Leader Mike Schreiner will face off in this provincial election campaign. Being held at a conference of municipal leaders in North Bay, the debate is expected to focus on Northern issues, so we are expecting discussion of the possibility of mining in the remote Ring of Fire region and the challenges faced by health system in North, both from the pandemic and the opioid crisis.

But we are also watching for how Mr. Ford handles being the crosshairs of the three other leaders and how much Mr. Del Duca and Ms. Horwath try to differentiate themselves as the best option for anti-Ford voters.

Clips of any “gaffes” or “knockout punches,” if there are any, will probably circulate on social media and could have some impact. But this first midday debate, a week into the campaign, also serves as a warm up for the second meeting between the leaders set for May 16, two weeks before the June 2 vote.

Marcus Gee: I’m Marcus Gee and I write a weekly column for the Globe. I’m viewing the debate from Toronto. I’ll be looking in particular for what the leaders say about their spending and budget plans, but I’m also interested in seeing how they handle themselves in the exchange.

When and where is the debate:

The debate coincides with the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities annual general meeting and will focus on issues concerning the 154 communities in the province’s northern region. It is being held at the Capitol Centre in North Bay on Tuesday, May 10, beginning at 1 p.m.; the debate will be available to stream on YouTube and on local television stations.

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