Of primary importance to many voters in Thunder Bay-Rainy River are the issues of forestry and economic development.
Four local candidates held forth on those issues during the debate here last Wednesday afternoon.
< *c>Forest industry
“We need to face the facts. They’re not interested in maintaining our forests, they’re interested in maintaining profits,” Green candidate Russ Aegard said of the big forestry companies.
“When those forests start to disappear, they disappear,” he added.
The industry would be more viable if kept in the hands of the workers.
“Why don’t employees have a stake in what they do?” Aegard asked. “They’ll manage the forest a lot better because they want the forest to be there in future for their children and their children’s children.”
Aegard called Abitibi-Consolidated’s recent sale of a tract of forest near Thunder Bay to a U.S. firm “abhorrent.”
“This has to stop,” he stressed.
NDP candidate John Rafferty said there are two main challenges facing the industry: the cost of fibre and the cost of energy.
And the fact forestry companies are predicting a wood gap in the near future that could last 15-20 years, it is even more urgent that government act now.
“We need to invest now more than ever,” Rafferty argued. “We need to keep these plants open because once they close, they will close for good, and we need to keep people working.”
The cost of energy can be solved in one of two ways, he added.
“We either have a regional pricing policy for Northwestern Ontario, or we go our own way and have our own Northwestern Ontario hydro commission,” he explained.
“We are self-sufficient. We can make that happen.”
Rafferty also called for a Northern Ontario wood audit, for the government to drop the GST immediately on all forest-related activity, and for stumpage fees collected here to be returned to the district.
“I don’t believe that Canada is for sale,” he said of the Abitibi land sale, adding government should have stepped in to stop the deal.
Although the federal Liberals did release a forestry aid package before the government fell in November, none of the money has been see yet, Rafferty said.
And the provincial package is made up mainly of loan guarantees.
“We have been working on this issue and we have delivered,” noted Liberal incumbent Ken Boshcoff.
The federal government has outlined what it will do, but “we must have commitment from companies. They have to show they’re going to stay in communities and support the workers,” he argued.
“Energy efficiency is clearly keeping us uncompetitive in a world market,” Boshcoff admitted. “Throwing federal dollars isn’t going to work.”
Conservative candidate David Leskowski said the government should do what it can to help the forest industry—and look at it as an investment, rather than “throwing dollars.”
“Those dollars will come back,” he said.
The $2.5 billion paid to the U.S. in softwood lumber duties is the result of the Liberal government failing to act years ago, he continued.
Had a Conservative government been in place, “that $2.5 billion would now be in the hands of our forest industry,” Leskowski said, adding forestry companies “should be covered dollar for dollar by our country who failed them.”
Once a logger and a forest technician himself, Leskowski said his party has an energy plan that would help local mills.
“The Conservative party’s policy to get involved directly in the energy market, to allow industries to access low-cost energy, and to fund them to do that is integral to not only the existing industries but any new ones we’re considering,” he added.
< *c>Economic development
Rafferty identified tourism, forestry, and farming as the three major economic drivers in the region.
“Farming is critical to the western part of this riding. It’s not just a rural issue. It’s an urban issue, too,” he said.
Since 1996, farm debt has doubled and 30,000 farms have closed, he noted. The NDP will “honour their critical role in this society.”
“The reason I ran for this office in the first place was for the economic rejuvenation of Northwestern Ontario,” Boshcoff said.
“Getting everybody singing from the same songbook is really the way to go,” he added, citing the effectiveness of groups such as the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association.
“When we are together, we are an extremely effective lobby,” he stressed.
FedNor also plays an important role. “Not only are we poised to save Northwestern Ontario, I know we can vault forward,” Boshcoff asserted.
“Finally the Liberals do something about infrastructure on broadband communications. That puts us now slightly behind the country of Ghana,” Leskowski chided.
“I’m getting tired of hearing about all of these endless Liberal meetings with you people, expecting you to solve your own problems,” he added. “I strenuously disagree with that approach.”
He also accused the Ontario government of planning to de-populate the north. “As a federal representative, I’ll say no,” Leskowski pledged.
There needs to be development of more skilled trades to help the region’s economy, he added, as well as a new energy policy.
“Our party’s adopted a platform to develop a national energy program which will encourage provinces and local grid suppliers to receive that energy,” Leskowski said.
Aegard said globalization has led to fewer and fewer locally-owned businesses” and the flourishing of so-called big box stores.
“Local economies, local business people. That’s where we should be investing,” he said. “That’s what keeps young people here.”
He agreed with Rafferty on the importance of family farms, and added the region needs to diversify its economy. For example, he suggested a furniture factory to take advantage of the forest industry here.
“There are 45,000 [forestry-related] jobs in Toronto where there are no trees. How does that make sense?” Aegard asked.
Other avenues worth investigating include hemp production and organic farming, he said.
“I’d love to see [organic farming] in this area. This riding has the perfect opportunity to be a leader in that sort of thing,” Aegard noted.