There’s nothing like a near-death experience to focus the mind. Just ask the people at Ontario Northland, the provincially owned company that runs trains and buses across the province’s northeast.
It’s been nearly five years since then-finance minister Dwight Duncan introduced an austerity budget that would have privatized Ontario Northland’s operations, sending shock waves through the north and reinforcing attitudes among local residents that the Liberals simply didn’t understand the needs of the region. Formally called the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC), the agency has a long history. Founded in 1902, its rail expansion into northern Ontario was crucial to the settling of towns like Cochrane, and, after World War I, it built what is still the only year-round connection to Ontario’s James Bay shore.
The government backed off the privatization plan after a change in leadership, for the most part: under Kathleen Wynne, the Liberals sold only the telecommunications division on Ontario Northland (and wound up losing more than $60 million on the sale). “It was a real period of uncertainty for this organization,” says CEO Corina Moore of 2012-13. “Certainly it was a stressful time.”
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Executives reassessed every area of the company's business in response to the threat of privatization, Moore says, exploring areas for potential growth. They decided to shift some of the agency’s in-house rail repairs from its yard in North Bay farther north, to Cochrane. That made room for Northland workers to bid on repair and rebuilding work in the wider industry.
That decision is paying dividends: last summer Northland won a four-year contract with Canarail to refurbish that company’s Rocky Mountaineer passenger cars, adding 50 positions to the North Bay yard. The company also has new customers for its freight-carrying business. The additional work is welcome, and it reduces Northland’s traditional reliance on the lumber and mining sector in the north.
“Forestry and mining are cyclical industries, so the more diverse we can be the more stable we are,” Moore says.
While 2016 was a better year for ONTC than any since 2012, it’s not self-sustaining: the province spent almost $80 million on Ontario Northland in 2015-16, compared to revenues of $62 million according to its public accounts. (That figure includes both operational funding and investments to help upgrade Northland’s buses and passenger train.) Though she didn't pursue privatization, service cuts have also continued under Wynne, with stations closed and schedules cut in 2015.
“Sustainability” isn’t just measured on an accountant’s balance sheet, however. Northerners grit their teeth at the implication that Northland should be expected to pay for itself or even generate a profit when, for example, GO Transit isn’t.
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At its height, Ontario Northland owned and operated ships, planes, hotels, resorts, and trucks, as well as its core rail service. However, successive governments of all parties have pared back ONTC’s operations: the New Democrats under Bob Rae sold the trucking business, the Tory government of Mike Harris shut down the Norontair airline, and the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty shut down the “Northlander” train that ran from Toronto to Cochrane.
What was once nearly an empire unto itself in the north has more modest ambitions these days. Ontario Northland is working on improving freight service throughout its area of operations, and enhancing service so customers can more easily transfer cargo from truck to train. The expansion of farming in the northeast offers another potential base of customers who need to get their products to market.
The changes haven’t come without some friction between management and labour. In 2015, Moore told a gathering of northern municipal leaders ONTC couldn’t keep operating as a money-losing government agency, adding “we want to move away from entitlement.” She was strongly criticized by the Unifor local that represents much of Ontario Northland’s workforce. ONTC’s labour unions are, not surprisingly, opposed to the cuts that have occurred during the company’s restructuring. Ontario Northland’s workforce has shrunk from nearly 1,000 in 2010 to 753 today. Most, but not all, of those positions lost have resulted from the sale of Ontera. That said, recent expansions, including 100 new hires in 2016, have left some workers optimistic.
“All in all, we’ve had good luck in the last two years,” says Greg Baker, general chairman of Teamsters local 910, which represents ONTC’s bus drivers. “I’d like to see more. It’s not about us, it’s about the public that relies on us.” In particular, Baker would like to see Northland’s operations expand to include connections with Sault Ste. Marie, and daily service to Ottawa.
Baker says that for many workers, the threat of privatization was seen as a decision made by a government too far from the north and too ignorant of conditions there.
“It’s the same old thing. Come up to northern Ontario and see how we live. Everything’s further apart, everything costs more to get around. We’ve been around for 100 years, and we’ve given great service for that long,” says Baker. “They just keep getting cut, cut, cut.”
The Liberal government has, for now, put the threat of privatization back in a box.
“When we made the decision to keep the motor coach, Polar Bear Express, rail freight, and refurbishment business lines of the ONTC in public hands, we committed to transforming the ONTC to ensure sustainable employment, continued economic growth, and a strong transportation network in northeastern Ontario,” Minister of Northern Development and Mines Mike Gravelle told TVO.org in an emailed statement.
The government is developing a multi-modal transportation strategy for northern Ontario, and as part of the consultations Moore says northerners have made it clear there’s an appetite for expanded service — something Ontario Northland is ready to provide if Queen’s Park is willing to spend the money on it.
“There’s some growth areas for Ontario Northland’s service when and if the province decides that expansion is required,” she says. “That’s come loud and clear from northerners.”