Liberal leadership rivals clash on autonomy for northern Ontario – by Maria Babbage ( – December 10, 2012)

THUNDER BAY, Ont. – Ontario’s Liberal leadership contenders clashed Sunday over the question of whether northern Ontario should be given more independence to resolve its own economic and social issues.

Facing off in Thunder Bay for the second official debate, the seven rivals tried to fight the perception that the governing Liberals are too Toronto-centric and neglecting a region that will likely become one of the toughest battlegrounds in the next provincial election.

It may be a difficult sell, given the slow progress in building infrastructure to develop the Ring of Fire chromite deposit and the cash-strapped government’s decision to privatize the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission and freeze a key energy project.

Other problems plaguing the Liberals were on display outside the lecture hall at Lakehead University, where dozens of labour and anti-wind turbine protesters picketed the debate. Most were from the union representing public high-school teachers, who wanted to show their displeasure with a controversial new law that gives the government the power to stop strikes, freeze wages and cut benefits.

Inside, the candidates answered pre-selected questions centering on education, aboriginal and northern issues. But the discussion kept circling back to whether northern Ontario should have the power to make its own decisions on creating jobs, tackling aboriginal issues and maintaining public services.

While all agreed that northern Ontario needs a say, they disagreed on how much independence should be given to the region.

Leveraging his experience as the former mayor of Winnipeg, Glen Murray pledged to give the north its own regional government so it can have more say over energy, infrastructure and natural resources. The promise has earned Murray the endorsement of four northern mayors, including Thunder Bay’s Keith Hobbs.

“If you look at what’s happening in Britain with devolving power to Scotland and Wales, why is this happening all over the world?” he said. “Because this new economy is regional and decisions have to be made much faster.”

But former aboriginal affairs minister Kathleen Wynne, who promised to form a northern cabinet committee, said she has some reservations about the idea.

“My only caveat and caution is that sometimes in this conversation, it starts to sound like we’re talking about a separation process, and I don’t think that’s where we should go,” she said.

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