Skip to main content

All the leaders clashed over the state of the roads in the North and long-standing complaints about snowplowing on Northern highways.Gino Donato/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s four main party leaders took the stage in North Bay for their first debate of the election campaign, clashing over health care, housing and the pandemic but largely focusing on Northern issues, including highway snowplowing and the revival of the Northlander train service.

Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath both targeted Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, whom many opinion polls have placed second in the race as the province’s June 2 election approaches. The midday event on Tuesday at North Bay’s Capitol Centre, organized by the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities, will be followed by a televised clash in Toronto on May 16.

Ontario election day 8: Party leaders back on election trail

Ms. Horwath was the first leader to come out swinging at Mr. Ford, using her opening remarks to repeat her campaign theme that the PC Leader “spends a lot of time prioritizing his buddies,” meaning developers and big business. But she then accused the Liberals of ignoring the North during the party’s 15 years in power, noting that they cut the Northlander train service that Mr. Ford, and all the other leaders, have since pledged to revive.

Often on the defensive, Mr. Ford pitched his vision to mine the minerals needed for electric-car batteries in the remote Ring of Fire region. Despite his repeated promises to put $1-billion toward a road to the area, environmental assessments, as well as complex consultations with First Nations, could still take years. The economic viability of many of the deposits believed to be in the region also remains an open question.

In first leaders’ debate of Ontario election, party leaders paid no attention to the issue that matters most: Cost of living

Ontario Liberals pledge to spend $1-billion, hire 10,000 teachers to cap class sizes

All the leaders clashed over the state of the roads in the North and long-standing complaints about snowplowing on Northern highways, prompting Mr. Ford to blame Mr. Del Duca, a former transportation minister in the Liberal government that the PCs defeated in 2018, for the problems. The Liberals, the NDP and the PCs have all promised to expand and upgrade various highways in Northern Ontario.

“I’ve driven these roads in the North, in the Far North, and it’s terrifying going down those roads, especially in the winter,” Mr. Ford said. " … Mr. Del Duca, you had your opportunity. And you failed.”

Ms. Horwath and Mr. Del Duca took aim at the PC Leader’s signature election promise of a massive highway in the greater Toronto area, the proposed 413, which the Liberal Leader pegs at $10-billion. Mr. Del Duca said he would use the money to build schools in the North and elsewhere instead. Both said the 413 would only benefit wealthy suburban developers, while Mr. Ford countered they were “anti-development.”

Asked about mental health and addictions, Ms. Horwath pointed out that Mr. Ford had capped the number of supervised drug-consumption sites in the province, which she said put people’s lives at risk. As she spoke, Mr. Ford muttered “that’s not true.” The Ford government did in fact cap the number of provincially funded sites in 2018 at 21, after Mr. Ford declared in that election campaign that he was “dead against” the facilities.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Ms. Horwath said. “The opioid crisis has been rolling through Northern Ontario for some time now. … There’s a crisis happening.”

Mr. Ford, who alluded to addiction issues in his own family, pointed to his government’s spending for mental-health and addictions treatment, listing off new treatment beds he said were added in the North.

On the pandemic, Ms. Horwath said Mr. Ford “did not want to spend the money” to hire enough personal support workers to keep seniors safe in long-term care homes or to make changes to keep schools open.

Green Leader Mike Schreiner, his party’s only MPP and the first Ontario Green Leader to participate in a leaders’ debate, focused his remarks on the need to build more housing and on how his climate-change plan would create green jobs in the North.

There are 13 ridings up for grabs in Ontario’s Northern region, many of them tight three-way races in past elections. The NDP have eight incumbents. The PCs, with four Northern seats, see a chance for gains, with Mr. Ford making recent campaign stops in Timmins and in Thunder Bay.

All the parties released Northern-focused platform planks in recent days: Mr. Ford emphasized his party’s commitment to bring back the Northlander and spend $74-million to rebuild Highway 101 through Timmins. Ms. Horwath vowed to lift the cap on supervised drug-consumption sites and hire 300 doctors for the region, including 100 specialists and 40 mental-health practitioners.

Mr. Del Duca pledged to create an Ontario immigration plan, similar to Quebec’s, to attract skilled workers to the North. Announcing the plan, he took a swipe at a comment made by Mr. Ford at the Northern debate in 2018 about “taking care of our own first.” The Liberals are also proposing to cover tuition costs for medical and nursing students who commit to working in a rural community.

After the hour and a half debate, all of the party leaders addressed the media except Mr. Ford, who quickly left the Capitol Centre on his campaign bus.

Asked about the cancellation of the Northlander train service, Mr. Del Duca said he is committed to restoring it if he becomes premier. While the train was cut in 2012, before he was sworn in as an MPP, he did not revive it when he was transportation minister from 2014 to 2018 under premier Kathleen Wynne.

“The fact of the matter is I’m not running to be a senior cabinet minister right now, I’m running to be the premier,” Mr. Del Duca said. “We are a new Liberal team, we have a new plan.”

For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.