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No clear winner as debate focuses on northern issues

'Northern roads are literally your lifelines'
2022 03 24 2022 Provincial Election Party Leaders Del Duca Ford Horwath Schreiner (Supplied)
Clockwise from top left: Steven Del Duca, Premier Doug Ford, Andrea Horwath and Mike Schreiner.

NORTH BAY, Ont. — The leaders of four major provincial parties met on the stage of North Bay's Capitol Centre for the first of two planned debates in the lead-up to the June 2 election.

The CBC's Markus Schwabe, the debate's moderator, deftly kept the pace moving along as the four participants: Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Green Leader Mike Schreiner presented planks of their platforms and mostly kept the discussion to northern issues.

The debate was the main attraction of the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities' annual conference being held in North Bay through Wednesday and was co-hosted by FONOM and NOMA (Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association).

See related: Enhanced security protocols for North Bay visit by provincial leaders

And: Large labour voices cry out at protest outside debate

Topics, selected by FONOM delegates touched on property taxes, cost of living in the north, the regulation of short-term rentals, housing, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and emergency supports, such as volunteer firefighter training, in northern Ontario.

See also: Keynote speaker gets municipal conference off to 'FONOM-enal' start

Ford, Horwath and Del Duca focused much of their energy on one another while Schreiner seemed content to effectively lay out the Green platform and included a climate crisis slant to many of his planks. On stage, Schreiner was by far the most energetic of the group and clearly relished the opportunity to reach a wide audience. 

See: Green Party releases northern platform

Schreiner observed the plans presented by his adversaries were "election gimmicks," and would not "solve the problems of the people of this province. These three supported the licence sticker gimmick, I opposed it because that's billions of dollars that can help fund health care, education, and better social services. "When I  talk to people in the north, they are saying to me: 'We need better access to health care.'"

The early tone was set by Ford, who, after various jibes at his governance retorted, "I'll never raise taxes but all three of my opponents will."

Ford put on an impressive performance. He stuck to his talking points and carried himself exactly the same way he has in his four years in power. He rolled with the punches from each side as Horwath and Del Duca doubled up with the barbs questioning his record, including criticism of Ford's handling of various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic — an assertion he pushed back on immediately.

See: Fedeli releases 'Get it Done' platform

Of all the day's participants, only Ford headed for the tour bus without taking questions from the media.

Horwath presented herself as the voice of reason on health care, mental health and addictions, and housing. She called out Ford for "taking care of his buddies," when it came to building Highway 413 — and business in general.

See: NDP unveils its northern platform. Overdose crisis will be declared a public health emergency

A Horwath rebuttal to Del Duca's take on  affordability and jobs in the north, stated "you had 15 years to pay attention to northerners."

Del Duca spent much of the debate under attack for his ties to the Kathleen Wynne government and his lack of action in the wake of the Northlander shutdown. To his credit, he made concise points in the face of these attacks and showed he would not back down to challenges to his record.

See: Liberals unveil northern platform. Promise an immigration plan that attracts New Canadians to the north and highway improvements

Del Duca also spent a fair amount of the afternoon on the offensive, rolling his eyes at the PC's planks and announcing "Ford is reading the script from four years ago."

A topic ripped from the headlines in the north is the state of transportation — including highways and the return of passenger rail — and drew the most reaction from the heavily partisan audience in the balcony.

See: Highway 11 collision claims life of expectant mother

And: 'To us, this is our Humboldt' says MPP in calling for driver licensing improvements and safer highway design

Ford admitted from his experiences travelling in northern Ontario,  "It is terrifying going down those roads," adding, "Mr. Del Duca, you were minister of transportation. You failed."

Horwath reminded the viewers it was her party that has persisted with bills geared to improving highway maintenance standards.

All four have pledged the return of the Northlander. 

"It's pretty interesting, I notice some of the promises Mr. Ford is making were in his last platform and he hasn't gotten around to those things — things like Highway 69."

Horwath added, "Northern roads are literally your lifelines." 

Ford soon after turned the tables, asking Del Duca and Horwath why they cancelled the Northlander. He credited Nipissing Vic Fedeli as a champion in the campaign to restore passenger rail from Toronto to Timmins.

Although there were times it was difficult to discern what was being said due to applause from supporters, there was relatively little talking over one another by candidates as seen in other debates. Schwabe kept the participants within the time limits and fairly distributed speaking opportunities. The debate can be seen in its entirety here.