Earlier I wrote about the challenges Premier Kathleen Wynne faces addressing discontent from northern Ontario residents as she tours that part of the province. I caught up with Premier Wynne during Sunday’s visit on Manitoulin Island — incidentally, she’s the first sitting Ontario premier to hold an official event on the island since Bob Rae did it a quarter-century ago. Here’s our conversation about northern issues. Click on the video to listen to what she had to say or read the transcript below.
Premier, thank you for taking the time to do this. Why the northern Ontario swing to begin with?
So I come to the north frequently, but there are some places that I have not been to, and I wanted to make sure we pack into the week I was going to be in the north all those places. I started in Sudbury, I’m here in Manitoulin now, I’ll be going to Sault Ste. Marie then I’m going to the west. I’m going to the Manitoba border, to Kenora, to Sioux Lookout, then I’m going to Moosonee. I haven’t been to Moosonee and Moose Factory in a number of years, and I want to get back there.
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Most of the places I’m going to I’m going back to, I’ve been there a number of times but a couple like this, I’ve never been to and wanted to make sure I got there.
What is the value in doing this?
The value is that I hear the nuance on issues that I’m already aware of, but I get that extra piece of information. So for example here, the tourism. When I was minister of transportation we started to pave the shoulders on secondary highways. Highway 6, I was up here when we were doing that. [Liberal MPP] Eleanor McMahon was the chairperson of Share the Road. So now, today, what I heard from some of the cycling folks is that tourism has increased enormously. You know, they’re seeing, they’re hearing from tourism operators that the majority of their, or more of their customers are cycling customers. They want now, as we –
They want more money.
Well, they want more paved shoulders. I don’t hear it like that, I hear they want more investment in infrastructure, so they can make more money and create more jobs.
This is day two of your northern trip, so this may be a bit of an unfair question, but what do you hear in terms of complaints from people? I noticed when you’re out there shaking hands, everyone seems perfectly polite, but is there a moment where people will actually share a complaint they have with what you’re doing?
People talk about energy, they talk about electricity costs, for sure. I think that’s the issue I’ve heard the most in the two days, and I’m sure I will continue to hear it. Because the fact is in the north the distribution charges are higher and I’m well aware of that and [Minister of Energy] Glenn Thibeault is well aware of that as well, and I try to let people know about the programs that we’ve got in place but at the end of the day I have to acknowledge there still is more that needs to be done. And we had to make the investments we’ve made in the electricity system. We’ve got a 90 per cent clean grid, carbon-free grid now, we’ve built more than 10,000 kilometres of transmission lines, but still the cost associated with that has hit some people disproportionately. So I have to be aware of that.
Most people I talk to about that issue seem to think the costs are so high because of investments you’ve made in solar and wind. Is that true?
No, it’s not true. And that’s one of the myths that has to be debunked. Because the fact is the bulk of the costs are, whether it’s debt that was left over from the previous government or the investments that we’ve made in the infrastructure that was needed to upgrade the grid, because when we came into office in ’03, there had been many years where the grid had been neglected, where there hadn’t been maintenance, where there hadn’t been new transmission built. So we had to do that, and we have to continue to do that. You know, the other thing that is true about the north is that there is more investment needed, you know, there are more communities that need to be opened up. There’s investment whether it’s in roads to remote communities or roads to replace winter roads that are not gonna stay in place as long now because of climate change, or more electricity transmission. So, you know, it’s kind of a double-edged sword. There are higher costs, but there’s also more need in terms of some of that basic infrastructure. And broadband, one of the things, we’re investing in broadband so I don’t hear about that as much, but that’s the kind of infrastructure that’s needed up here.
Just as a little experiment, I put a picture up on Facebook the other day, of the Cup and Saucer Trail, which is one of the most gorgeous places on Earth, and it’s here on this island. And I basically said, what do you see? And a lot of people said basically “Oh my goodness, Niagara Escarpment, Bruce Trail, phenomenal, gorgeous.” Other people saw the six windmills in the background, the wind turbines, and said “What a blight on our landscape.’ What would you say to those people who say those towers are ruining this province?
I would say to them that in Ontario, we have to have a diverse grid in order for our electricity system to be clean and renewable. And there are going to be many solutions to that. Wind power is one of them. I visited today in Espanola a greenhouse that’s going to be a net-zero building that’s going to have solar panels on the roof. Solar is part of that solution. There are going to be lots of solutions. But we don’t have the hydro power of Quebec or Manitoba. So we have to diversify. And we’ll continue to have a baseload of nuclear, but I want to make sure we do everything we can to keep that clean grid in place, and wind power is part of that. We’ve changed the process so that municipalities and communities have more input into where those wind turbines are sited. But I understand there will still be people with questions about this.
Let me finally get your views on this political development here in northern Ontario, the creation of the Northern Ontario Party, which is something that seems to happen once a generation or so. Presumably this kind of thing doesn’t happen unless people up here don’t believe the mainline parties are representing their interests. What is it the three traditional parties are not doing, that seems to have this cry every couple of generations or so for something else?
I don’t know, Steve, and I don’t know whether there’s a direct line between what traditional parties are doing, what government’s doing, and the development, or the rising up of this party again, or whether it’s a broader phenomenon. I really don’t know the answer to that, you’d have to ask them. But what I do know is that I govern one Ontario. When we look at policies at our cabinet table, we’ve got four ministers from the north who raise issues on a regular basis and see action, you know, whether it’s the spring bear hunt or whether it’s investments in community infrastructure, health infrastructure like the announcement I was making today in Espanola. I know we are paying attention to the needs of the whole province, so if that’s not getting through that may be part of the challenge. But I believe we’re stronger as a province if we have an integrated community, and integrated society. That’s why I see us as one Ontario.