The northern Ontario leaders’ debate, held in Parry Sound on Friday, featured three of the four major party leaders proclaiming their love and respect for the province’s north. And nobody loves the north more than Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford — just ask him.
Or don’t. He’ll tell you.
There’s plenty of reason to criticize the Liberals for their policies in northern Ontario, and both Ford and NDP leader Andrea Horwath gave Kathleen Wynne a hard time in the debate, criticizing her government for cancelling the Northlander train and for its regulation of northern wildlife. But late in the debate, Ford missed a beat in a way that voters might find important.
The three leaders were asked whether they would support a northern-Ontario-focused immigration nominee pilot program, which would let businesses in the north sponsor immigrants to come work there specifically (similar programs have been implemented in other provinces).
Wynne and Horwath both said they would support a pilot, and Horwath explicitly committed to expanding the program if the pilot were to show positive results.
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Doug Ford’s answer, meanwhile: “I’d be more than happy to sit down and talk to the folks and look at a pilot project. But number one, I’m a pretty generous guy — I’m taking care of our own first. Once we take care of our own, once we exhaust every single avenue and don’t have anyone that can fill a job, then I’d be open to that.”
The answer was predictably populist, but even if Ford didn’t realize it, it also ran directly counter to his repeated claim that he — and only he — is the one listening to the north.
Northern and rural leaders haven’t been shy about this: they want more immigrants. Towns and cities across the region are trying to lure new Canadians with different tools and levers (The Agenda covered these efforts recently), and a nominee program would be a new tool in their toolbox.
After the debate, reporters asked both Wynne and Horwath about Ford’s comments.
“I took a sharp intake of breath at that point,” Wynne said. “Everything that I have done as a premier has been about trying to make sure that everyone in this province has a fair shot and that our province is diverse."
Horwath suggested that Ford had simply “missed the point of the question.”
“The point of the question was that these municipalities, they need more population, they need new people to come and live here,” she said. “They are opening their communities to immigration, and they want the provincial government to step up to the plate and negotiate these agreements with the federal government to get these kind of skills and newcomers to come north.”
As for the idea of “helping our own” first, the demographics of the north are pretty daunting. Even large cities are having a hard time keeping the people they have (Sudbury, for example, has added only about 4,000 people in the past decade; Thunder Bay has lost people in that time), much less growing. Many northern leaders have become convinced that immigration is part of the solution to their problem, not an obstacle.
There’s more to the north than just mayors and businesses looking for new workers and residents — but it was another example of an important policy discussion in which Ford fell back on a populist slogan.
With files from Claude Sharma.