Jim Wilson, Minister of Economic Development, Small Business and Trade held a "red tape reduction" roundtable discussion in North Bay Thursday to get a northern perspective from the local business community.
“We’ve got to find solutions where we are now. The number of closed storefronts is disturbing. We just don’t have it in the south. We look outside our bubble at Queen’s Park, and it is crane, after crane, after crane. There’s a lot of money in the south, and you’re just not sharing in the prosperity in the north. And that’s why we’re having these roundtables,” said Wilson.
“The south is booming, but you can’t just keep building condos. We need to build a real manufacturing economy again, and we’re working on it.”
He recognizes the economic needs are different in the north.
“In the south they’re telling us 'no more corporate welfare, get out of our way, cut the regulations, cut the red tape.' Here we hear, 'cut the red tape, but don’t get out of our way, we actually need government assistance.' And getting the railway going again will help in making sure the hospital is funded properly,” said Wilson.
“It is a different economy, and we need more of our colleagues at Queen’s Park to come up and see that we need northerners to tell us what northern solutions are. And I know we’ve said that, but the Premier has told us that we have to deliver.”
The previous day, Caroline Mulroney, Attorney General of Ontario and Minister Responsible for Francophone Affairs, attended a Francophone small business roundtable in the city.
“I’m trying to get as many cabinet ministers here to see,” said Minister of Finance and Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli.
“When you look of Queen’s Park, all you see are cranes, and building and people working. They’re tripping over each other to hire people, yet here it is completely different. They need to see this in Queen’s Park that we’ve lost population here, and we have closed storefronts. So it is all about the creation of northern jobs.”
Fedeli says it will take giving business the tools they need.
“By lowering their taxes, by lowering the requirements, by cutting red tape. Look at the Ring of Fire. The one company took two years just to get an environmental assessment approval, to do an environmental assessment. It should have taken 45 days. Two years to get the right to be able to spend millions of dollars, and the next four years doing the real assessment. That’s the kind of nonsense the companies were going through that made us fall from the number one mining jurisdiction in the world to number 28.”
Around the table, business owners spoke out about minimum wage, rules and regulation in Ontario, tax rates and the HST.
The business community has let the province know that red tape is crippling job creation in Ontario.
“If you look at the 385,000 pieces of red tape we have in comparison to BC that has 200,000 a lot of those, almost 2,000 of those are in the mining sector. A lot of those didn’t exist 15 years ago. For mining, we’ve got to let people get their permits. We have to deal with a number of the Acts that have to be improved upon and we’ve got to get people working again,” said Wilson.
“The average permit to build anything in Ontario now is three years, in Michigan, it is 90 days guaranteed. We need to move towards that. One of the simple things we can do is track your application. We should bar code every application so if it is sitting on someone’s desk, we know who to go to.”
Fedeli says the Premier is taking note of business' reaction to dealing with red tape.
“The Premier has created a deputy minister of red tape. That’s how serious this issue is in Ontario, and it is stifling businesses.”
It is something Fedeli has had to deal with in his own riding.
“We’ve heard a lot, whether it is transportation issues, and getting permits on the highways, or their competitors going for cash as opposed to an invoiced project. We’ve heard from all of them that WSIB, that WHMIS, all of the various places that issue rules and regulations are just crippling the business community, filling out forms instead of taking care of their customers.”
Wilson says businesses keep telling him that their biggest issues are Bill 148, and electricity.
“Whether it is the manufacturers or even an insurance company, Bill 148 is something we are reviewing at Queen’s Park, and we’ll be making announcements on that shortly. The worst of 148 is yet to come, so the scheduling provisions, the unionization provisions, stuff that frankly nobody asked for.”
The Minister of Finance says the Premier has made it clear that Ontario is open for business.
“And the business community here says, ‘Show us how. What are you doing for us,?” said Fedeli.
“We talked about the fact we’re cutting the corporate tax rate from 11.5 to 10.5 per cent. We’re cutting the small business tax rate by 8.75 per cent. We’re lowering hydro rates by 12 per cent. We’re looking at other ways to help the business community,” said Fedeli.
“But they’re saying it is this cumulative effect. It is not just one law or one rule that has hurt us and caused us to stop hiring. It is the cumulative effect. So we’re looking at the minimum wage bill, we’re looking all of the apprentice issues. There was a long litaney of issues, 385,000 regulations in Ontario.”
The government will freeze minimum wage at $14 an hour for the time being.
“We think a 20 per cent raise this year to the minimum wage was sufficient. And the fact of the matter is, that it is the red herring. That’s the one that the Liberal’s wanted us all to chat about going from $11.40 to $15.00 an hour in a short period of time,” said Wilson.
“The other provisions are scheduling, it is the paid leave. We’re always going to have sick leave in the province They might have gone a bit overboard in Bill 148 and that’s what we’re hearing around the table.”
Wilson called it “strange” that there are a lot of people who are unemployed, but business is hard pressed to find skilled workers, and labourers.
What he finds unique to the north is the large problem of retaining skilled employees because a spouse can’t find work.
“If you do end up recruiting someone, a spouse can’t get a job. And that’s really unique. I don’t find that in my area in the south in the Collingwood and Alliston area. We need to do more in the north. We may have to have a program for spouses, I don’t know what that would look like just yet.”
Fedeli was asked for an update on the Northlander train. He said there is nothing to share at this time, but it remains a “very active file.”
“One of the comments in there (business round table) was when are we going to see more activity transferring Ontario Northland from MNDM (Ministry of Northern Development and Mines) over to the Ministry of Transportation where it used to be, because it is more of a transportation company now than anything else.”
The Premier will get a copy of everything discussed at the roundtable.
The next one is scheduled with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry in the spring, to discuss the forestry sector.