SUDBURY — Most people who have a young family to raise wouldn’t give up a third of their salary, a healthy benefits package, and other perks of a job at a crown agency for a slender chance at a seat in the legislature.
But Trevor Holliday has done just that. Driven by his passion for the north, the 35-year-old from Callander (a community about a 15-minute drive south of North Bay) quit his job as a bus driver with the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission to take up the post of leader of the Northern Ontario Party (while also accepting a day job as manager for a commercial cleaning company to make ends meet).
“I want to fight for northern Ontario,” says the father of five, who feels the north has been mistreated and misgoverned by the mainstream parties at Queen’s Park.
Holliday is running as a candidate in Nipissing, the riding that covers North Bay, in the hopes of winning the first-ever seat at Queen’s Park for the Northern Ontario Party in the June 7 provincial election. It’s a longshot bid: Progressive Conservative Vic Fedeli has held the seat since 2011. In the 2014 election, he beat his nearest competitor by more than 4,700 votes (the NOP didn’t run in the riding that year).
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The few NOP candidates running for office across northern Ontario face similarly difficult odds. What’s motivating them, and the party’s paid membership of about 300 people, is a shared conviction that northern Ontario is poorly served by Queen’s Park and that something needs to be done about it.
Holliday is looking for more northern autonomy. He says politicians in Toronto make too many vital decisions for an area of the province they know little about. He doubts if most of them have visited places like Timmins, Elliot Lake, and Sault Ste. Marie unless it’s for a photo opportunity.
“The Liberals reinstated the spring bear hunt. They cancelled an important train service up here. We should be involved in the process,” he says.
Holliday says a step in the right direction would be to establish northern-only ministries. The concept of a northern Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry would better suit the needs of people, he says, because “real northerners” would be in the room crafting legislation.
Holliday’s political life started in early 2016, when he launched an online petition calling for northern Ontario to split off and become its own province. It received more than 4,500 signatures. He believes people of the north should be making decisions for themselves, and it can only happen if his party wins seats in the legislature to fight for the region’s interests.
Beyond that, the party platform is short and simple. On Indigenous affairs, for example, it says the party will “assist and promote indigenous communities, the ability to produce and operate power in their communities.” To deal with affordable housing, "the developers of apartment buildings and housing will have incentives to offer 20 per cent of their units for people with specific living requirements."
The NOP also embraces a form of direct democracy. In the event that it ever sends a caucus to Queen’s Park, it promises not to have a party whip: members will poll their constituents to determine how to vote.
Holliday says the party’s goal is to eventually lead the charge in creating a separate province of Northern Ontario. However, he says separation is not a priority for the current campaign.
A heritage that goes back to the 1970s
The NOP isn’t a household name but it isn’t entirely new either. In 2016, party members rebranded and rebooted the Northern Ontario Heritage Party that formed in the 1970s under Ed Deibel, a staunch northern advocate, who lives in North Bay.
To protest tax increases and raise awareness of northern grievances, Deibel travelled to Queen’s Park sometime around 1973 (he can’t be quite sure of the year) and lived in a tent outside the Ontario Legislative Building for several days. Eventually he got a face-to-face meeting with then-premier Bill Davis. Deibel recalls a dismissive response from Davis to the effect that everyone gets “a vote every four years” — a sufficient chance to have a say about how the province is run. That conversation inspired Deibel to eventually register the NOHP, which got an official certification in 1977.
The 85-year-old fought for decades to make northern Ontario its own province. In the last few years, however, he has let go of that dream. “I don’t waste my time with that anymore,” Deibel says. Having sought advice from legal experts over the years, he has come to understand the province can’t be split in two. So he prefers to focus on helping NOP candidates gain a voice at Queen’s Park.
“We want our resources processed here in northern Ontario,” he says. “That will produce jobs and wealth and lead to a higher standard of living.”
In 2014, 892 Ontarians voted for the NOHP, a modest increase from 676 votes in 2011. Gino Chitaroni collected the lion’s share of the party’s votes in 2014 with 615 in Timiskaming-Cochrane. He finished fourth, beating out the Green Party candidate. (Chitaroni, a prospector and geologist, is sitting out the 2018 election to concentrate on work.)
Shawn Poirier is taking over for Chitaroni in Timiskaming-Cochrane in this election. Poirier, a longtime truck driver who lives in the mining town of Cobalt, is also new to politics. Driving his truck through some the main northern arteries — highways 11, 17, and 101 — Poirier despaired at “seeing all of the businesses close down and relocate. We keep losing the ‘ma and pa’ shops.”
Like other party members, Poirier is aware that some people don’t take the NOP seriously. To win his riding, Poirier will have to beat out incumbent, NDP candidate John Vanthof, who has secured 50 per cent or more of votes in the past two elections. But Poirier says he is all in — he has taken a leave of absence from work to dedicate all of his time to campaigning.
“For over a year I have been putting money aside, making room on a credit line,” Poirier says. His wife has been taking extra shifts to help fund his campaign.
Nine candidates for 13 ridings
For the upcoming election, the NOP planned to have a candidate in all 13 northern Ontario ridings, plus one in Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne’s Toronto constituency of Don Valley West (the candidate there decided not to run after all, so Wynne won’t have to worry about the competition). Holliday says the party has five candidates confirmed to run, and he expects four more to file papers before the May 17 deadline.
David Tabachnick, a political science professor at Nipissing University in North Bay, is skeptical of the NOP’s claim to speak for the north. “If you can’t come up with 13 people to run in the 13 ridings, are you really the northern Ontario party? I don’t think so,” he says.
To advance its cause, Tabachnick says the NOP would have to have a more professional and experienced executive. But while the party’s public image is not polished enough in his opinion, that could also work to its advantage. “They look like us and they speak like us,” Tabachnick notes. “So they look authentic, which not very many politicians can pull off.”
In Tabachnick’s view, receiving a greater number of votes overall would count as a success for the party in the election next month.
Deibel, however, feels the party he started has already succeeded by giving people in some ridings a distinctively northern choice on the ballot.
“We are laying the foundation of bigger things to come.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
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