Northwestern Ontario residents have no shortage of concerns—ranging from hydro costs, shuttered mills, and a lack of jobs to health care.
But Premier Kathleen Wynne said she is listening and her Liberal government is not being idle.
A local hot button issue is that of community wood rights in the Crossroute Forest.
As it stands now, these rights are retained by Resolute—even if it sells its shuttered Fort Frances mill to another company.
Any prospective owner is going to need to be assured they have access to an ample wood supply.
“I’ve had discussions with a couple ministers of natural resources . . . and I am committed to making sure that there is wood supply into the future,” Premier Wynne pledged in an interview with the Times during her visit to Fort Frances last Tuesday.
“I really believe that forestry is part of our past but it’s also part of our future,” she noted.
“It’s why I want to see us have another softwood lumber deal with the [U.S.], and I know it’s something I’ve raised with the prime minister and with the ambassador to the United States so it’s really important to me.
“It’s contingent upon us to make sure we have the policies in place to keep that supply,” the premier added.
“I know there’s been some anxiety about the forest management plans but as I say, we are convinced that the way it’s rolling out, and the way our policies are in place, there will be wood supply.”
Northern Development and Mines minister Michael Gravelle noted the wood rights issue has been—and will continue to be—discussed at a government level.
He added it’s been made very clear that “if a purchaser does materialize in a very precise way, the wood rights will be there, the wood supply will be there.”
Gravelle noted such discussions will continue—probably even at the annual general meeting of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario in Windsor this week (Aug. 14-17), which was attended by local delegates.
“We’re very much working together to make this happen and always working in a positive way,” he pledged.
“We’ll stay absolutely available to the process and stay as close to it as we can because we want it to be successful,” echoed Premier Wynne.
A more widespread issue is soaring hydro rates, which have created a crisis in Ontario—hitting rural areas and remote First Nations especially hard because they are charged higher delivery costs by utility companies than customers in urban high-density areas.
Even when hydro customers try to conserve and use less electricity than Hydro One anticipates, such as last winter, they see rate increases.
When asked what her government is doing to address this crisis, Premier Wynne told the Times she’s well aware how people feel.
“I’ve heard it,” she remarked. “I started my visits to communities on Saturday and I’ve heard it in every community, and I know it’s not something unique to Fort Frances.”
The premier stressed the province has tried to mitigate the impact of electricity costs in the north—and will keep trying.
“Specifically because of the unique features in the north, the unique characteristics, we’ve put programs in place to address those.
“So there’s a Northern Ontario Energy Credit, there’s an industrial energy program that reduces costs for industrial users in the north,” she noted. “There’s a Rural and Remote program that evens out the distribution costs.
“So we actually have taken steps to address the challenge.
“There’s also the Ontario Support Program so for people who are living on low income, they can apply and they can get a reduction,” added Premier Wynne.
“Those programs are in place specifically because we know that there are people that are challenged.”
The premier said her government has had to make investments in the electricity system—and those upgrades cost money.
“When we came into office in 2003 under the previous premier, we were dealing with a degraded system that needed to be upgraded,” she noted.
“We’ve built more than 10,000 km of line.
“At the time, there were blackouts and brown-outs, and now we have a reliable system,” the premier added.
“So that investment has a cost associated with it. That’s a reality,” she said.
“We recognize that and that’s why we’ve put programs in place.
“Having said all of that, we know that there’s more that people are looking for and we will continue to try to find ways to address those challenges,” she pledged.
Premier Wynne stressed her Liberal government has four northern ministers at the table, including Energy minister Glen Thibault from Sudbury, and he’s very aware of the challenges in the north.
“Part of his role is to look at what we can do and I think there are a number of proposals that can come forward,” she remarked.
“I know we’ve put a lot of programs in place but there’s more people are looking for,” the premier reiterated.