Stakeholder talks open on ONTC – by Liz Cowan (Northern Ontario Business – March 26, 2013)

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Minister of Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle delivers the government’s message on the ONTC to the media, March 25 in North Bay, while members of his special advisory committee look on.
A year and two days later after the provincial government’s controversial decision to sell off the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC), regional stakeholders were finally given a chance to provide input.

Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle met with a new ONTC advisory committee of political, industry and First Nations representatives in North Bay, March 25.

“All the members have provided ideas to help the government’s decision on the ONTC divestment and are helping us move to a more sustainable telecommunications and transportation system for the North,” he said. “This is clearly a very important issue here for us, and I deeply value the opinions, viewpoints and the experience of all the committee members.”

On March 23, 2012, Liberal MPP Rick Bartolucci, who was then minister of Northern Development and Mines, announced the surprise divestment of the North Bay-headquartered Crown agency from his home riding in Sudbury. It caused an uproar from unionized workers and community leaders across northeastern Ontario.

The divestment process was to take a year, but so far only Ontera, the agency’s telecommunications division, has been put up for sale. Infrastructure Ontario is assessing prospective buyers. The Northlander passenger service was discontinued last fall.

At the same time, Ontario’s auditor general is investigating the Ontario Northland sale. Nipissing Conservative MPP Vic Fedeli is challenging the government’s annual investment figures in the ONTC and is requesting that the divestiture process be halted.

One thing the government made clear at the meeting is that the divestment will still move forward, and there will be no opportunity for the committee to comment on Ontera. The Ontario government has not announced what business line will be sold off next, nor given any timelines.

Northeastern mayors and community leaders have been requesting to have a voice in the sale of the ONTC’s various business lines, including rail freight and bus transportation.

With a restructured Liberal government, Gravelle agreed those in the North deserved to be heard.

“I have been minister a month, and I can’t speak to how things were done in the past, but I can say I am certainly committed and convinced, that the role they play is a crucial one as this process moves forward.”

The committee consists of Geoff Cowell, Xstrata’s supply chain manager; Marc Leblanc, logistics manager at Tembec; North Bay Mayor Al McDonald, Timmins Mayor Tom Laughren; Kapuskasing Mayor and Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) president Al Spacek; Anishinabek Lake Huron Regional Grand Chief Isadore Day; Metis Nation of Ontario Chair France Picotte; Englehart Mayor Nina Wallace and Gord Smith, president and CEO of Manitoulin Transport.

“I am very encouraged by today’s discussion,” said Gravelle. “It was very open and forthright.

Specifically what I am looking forward to is the opportunity we will have as a group to be working hard on setting up the criteria that will be in place for potential proposals moving forward on the divestment.”

Northeast mayors said the first meeting was positive, and they are encouraged to be part of the process.

“The minister was clear of what the government wants to achieve,” said Spacek. “He is a person of his word and FONOM has been asking for this from day one. We always had two major requests, which were all stakeholders to be involved in the process, and how much is it going to cost and how much will it save. We have an opportunity to influence what they are going to base their decision on.”

Wallace said it was disappointing the committee wouldn’t have any input on Ontera, but is glad the mayors and others, are finally being heard.

“It is too bad we are being heard on the divestment process rather than the decision to divest or not,” she said.

“I am always a believer if you put the right information in front of anyone, you will get the right answers,” Laughren said. “I believe we will have input.”

For North Bay’s mayor, the committee provides a light at the end of the tunnel.

“It doesn’t mean we will get what we want at the end,” said McDonald, “but if there is no communication, like there was in the past, it was impossible.”

The committee members were not prepared to sign a non-disclosure agreement at the first meeting, but were encouraged that information was to be shared.

Gravelle said whatever happens in terms of a private sector takeover has to be one that works for the region.

“I want to see the long-term sustainability of the ONTC. The decision was made over a year ago, but is there a way for the private sector to take over a number of the operations and run them in a more efficient manner while still maintaining the priorities? I believe there is.”

In a release, Nipissing Conservative MPP Vic Fedeli remains unimpressed that the “fire sale of Ontario Northland” will continue.

“My position hasn’t changed in that the government should hit the pause button while the auditor general conducts his investigation of the divestiture. I believe I have proven the government will achieve no savings.”

Gravelle looks forward to the auditor general’s report, expected in about six months.

“I am very keen to see what he has to say,” he said. “I am not going to pretend that me coming here for one meeting and one gathering is going to provide an enormous level of comfort to everyone in northeastern Ontario, but it is a real commitment and not just symbolic. This committee is a very real committee.”