The Northern Ontario Showdown – by Kevin Vincent (Timmins – May 15, 2011)

Kevin Vincent is publisher of, Timmins #1 media web site.

I’ve been wrestling with this topic for several days and I’ve decided, what the heck, it needs to be said. Timmins successfully hosted close to 300 northern Ontario political dignitaries at the annual FONOM (Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities) conference at the McIntyre Arena last week. From the outside looking in – several things are crystal clear.

First, many northern municipal mayors, reeves and councilors are not thrilled with Queens Park these days. Trust me, there are more who are pissed off at Queens Park than meets the eye – they have to walk a fine line because stating your true feelings in an open and public manner can backfire. The hand that feeds is also the hand that slaps.

I’ll get to Tim Hudak and Rick Bartolucci in just a minute – but first I want to say a few things about “the lay of the land”. There is ample evidence that environmental groups have their claws firmly dug into the skin of the ruling party. Municipal leaders, industry leaders, and First Nations leaders are collectively screaming about a boatload of new legislation designed to control the day to day lives of northerners and the industries that sustain them. They are not happy. And they have every reason to be upset.

At this point no-one is predicting the NDP are about to unseat the governing Liberals – most polls are suggesting the Conservatives will return to power. Now, to be fair, until the polls started to shift in the last two weeks of the federal election, no-one was betting the house that Jack Layton would be moving into Stornoway either. Politics can be crazy that way.

I had no intention of sitting through three full days of FONOM meetings so I decided to pick and choose a few sessions and try to get a sense of how municipal leaders are REALLY feeling about the next provincial election and the state of northern Ontario.

All in all, it is clear that the traditional Liberal/PC showdown is well at hand. Tim Hudak delivered a very straight forward message – the full video of which you can see elsewhere on this site and YouTube. I also went to Rick Bartolucci’s speech and I must confess – I was completely stunned at the manner in which he chose to defend his government’s record in the North.

Yes, he delivered the party line. Yes, the Liberals have “a record”. But talking down to your fellow
northerners was offensive. Instead of delivering his message from a podium, Bartolucci donned a wireless microphone and began wandering around the room – reminding “his friends” that “we’re all in this together”. In his desire to connect and “feel the love” from the room, he name-dropped as many mayors as he could and at one point mistakenly put his hand on the shoulder of a municipal official from “Hearst” who was actually from Kapuskasing.

He called former North Bay mayor Vic Fideli a great friend and told the audience that Vic was running for the wrong party in the upcoming October election. Fideli is running for the Conservatives and is widely expected to win his seat easily. There’s no doubt that the Liberals would like to have Fideli because he will win Nipissing hands down. The Conservatives (and Liberals by the way) both wanted Tom Laughren for Timmins-James Bay – but it looks like he’s unofficially declined both the invitations. Maybe that too, will change, who knows.

All in all, Bartolucci looked and acted like a southern preacher – the only thing missing was a soft-bound copy of the bible flopping from one hand, the robes and a pulpit to pound on. He made a lot of people in the room uncomfortable. At one point I got up and walked to the back of the room just to observe body language. Dozens of mayors and councilors were shaking their heads, scoffing at the partisan rhetoric and grabbing their cell-phones – looking for another distraction.

Bartolucci is a former teacher – one who was clearly adept at walking around a classroom and talking down to all the little children in the room. But this wasn’t a room full of children. These were adults. Some of whom have been municipal politicians in their respective towns and cities for many, many years. He was giving them a lecture. A history lesson on the Liberal love affair and commitment to northern Ontario. A lecture that, in light of The Far North Act, Bill 151, and the Caribou Protection Act or whatever it is called, was politely received but widely admonished.

At one point he made reference to the David Peterson Liberal government that decentralized civil service jobs from the south into northern Ontario. He’s right. Sudbury got the entire Ministry of Northern Development and Mines and a massive government complex to go with it. Sault Ste. Marie got the Ontario Lottery Corporation.

Bartolucci, was commonly known then as the “Minister of Sudbury Development and Mines” during his short tenure as the Minister of NORTHERN Development and Mines. Make no mistake, despite his sermon last Thursday, he is a Sudburian first, and a northerner second – and you know what? Good for him and by extension, good for Sudbury.

What did Timmins get by the way? Nothing. Bartolucci had a selective memory. Former Mayor Vic Power made several trips to Peterson’s office to complain. “Hey! How about Timmins?” was Power’s message. In frustration, Peterson ordered a handful of MTO (Ministry of Transportation) jobs to be relocated from New Liskeard to Timmins – and when the news hit the media throughout the region – I was there I covered the story – politicians in the Tri-Town area were furious and the jobs eventually, quietly, and rightfully were returned to New Liskeard.

Mike Doody – the longtime Timmins councilor and former Timmins mayor, and a lifelong Liberal – openly asked the next day why Premier Dalton McGuinty has never been to Timmins since he was elected in 2003. He’s been everywhere else. Why not here?

Lastly, I want to talk about the other political piece of news this past week – Al Spacek. The mayor of Kapuskasing will clearly be the PC candidate in the upcoming provincial election for Timmins-James Bay. There are those who suggest this riding needs someone from Timmins to win the seat.

Spacek received an enthusiastic response at an open breakfast meeting of area Conservatives and an equally enthusiastic response from a number of high profile and highly influential Timmins business leaders at a private, closed-door meeting a short time later. Clearly the skeptics are wrong. He’ll have a strong team and plenty of money to get the job done. One insider told me that a highly prominent Timmins leader told Spacek “whatever it takes – we’ll get it done”. 

One of the Timmins newspaper headlines that day said Spacek is gearing up to challenge Gilles Bisson’s 21 year reign. A Timmins website is openly debating a rumour that Bisson has told his advisors that this will be his last election. It’s all speculation at this point.

Change is in the wind. Northerners are fired up about this next election. The only question now, is how much of that change will blow through Timmins-James Bay and whether voters are content to sit in opposition or government.