The Ontario government’s plans to sell off services of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC) could lead to higher costs for members of the James Bay communities, according to Mushkegowuk Deputy Grand Chief Leo Friday.
Last year, the province announced it would be divesting the government-owned transportation commission after citing stagnant ridership and increasing costs to its bus and train services that operate mostly in northeastern Ontario.
One of those services in the Polar Bear Express train, which runs between Moosonee and Cochrane and serves as a vital link between the James Bay coast and the rest of Ontario.
Since 2003, the province increased funding by 274 per cent to subsidize the Polar Bear Express, a subsidy that averages to about $400 per passenger. If the province continues with its divestment plan to sell the train services to a private corporation, Friday believes the people of James Bay will face the most financial impact.
“The minute the other company operates that train, they will jack up the rates and it’s not going to run every day – maybe once or twice a week because of the cutbacks,” Friday said. “And in order to have that business profitable or marginally profitable, that’s what’s going to happen.”
Friday said the closure of the Northlander train that runs between Cochrane and Toronto has impacted medical patients who need to travel to Kingston for appointments. It made its last run in September 2012.
To reduce costs, the James Bay regional health authority had recently turned from aircraft to ground transportation to send patients to Kingston. As a result, patients – who are mostly seniors – were forced to take the bus, which can take more than 12 hours to reach Toronto from Cochrane.
“From Cochrane to Kingston is a long trip and a lot of people can’t move around because it’s a tight area in the bus,” Friday said. “And a lot of people are not equipped to own their own car because they don’t have a lot of money.”
The sale of Ontera, ONTC’s telecommunications company that offers Internet and telephone service, is also raising concerns about potential increased costs for its services once it is sold. ONTC put Ontera to tender and is reportedly reviewing bids.
Friday said the Ontario government is wrong in its approach to divest the ONTC.
“They want to sell it to the richest people and they don’t look at the people who pay for the services,” he said. “And these are the people they should be negotiating with and be a partner with instead of trying to make a war against us. They should try to sit down with us and try to make a deal with First Nations people.”
The office of Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle said the province took “strong action” by establishing an advisory committee “made up of northern representatives to provide input” on the divestment of the ONTC.
“The committee is composed of members who bring forward the perspectives of Aboriginal communities, municipalities, business and industry in the ONTC service area,” Gravelle’s office said in an e-mail to Wawatay News. “We are working with this committed group of northern leaders to look at different options for each of the ONTC business lines.”
Friday said he is not aware of any James Bay leaders being on the advisory committee.
Last March, it was announced that Ontario’s auditor general would be investigating the financials behind the potential divestment of the ONTC. His report is expected in the late summer and he will present to the Ontario legislature in September.