North a battleground in pending election – by Brian MacLeod (Sudbury Star – May 1, 2014)

The Sudbury Star is the City of Greater Sudbury’s daily newspaper.

Premier Kathleen Wynne is trying to put Northern Ontario back in play for the Liberals. It will be a bumpy road – there are a lot of potholes on northern roads, both literally and figuratively.

The Liberals hold only four of the 11 seats in the North, dropping three in the 2011 election and barely holding on to Sudbury and Thunder Bay Atikokan. Three of their four MPPs in the North are cabinet ministers. The NDP, which holds five seats in the region, is putting on a heavy push. Leader Andrea Horwath is a regular presence, touring the region often and showing up at candidate nomination meetings.

The Progressive Conservatives’ have two northern MPPs, finance critic Vic Fedeli in Nipissing and Norm Miller in Parry Sound-Muskoka. Neither appears to be in any danger.

The rest of the North is becoming a battleground between the NDP and the Liberals, and unlike Dalton McGuinty – who refused to show up to a debate on Northern issues in Thunder Bay in 2011 – Wynne has realized the party must have a significant presence in the region if she is to have any shot at a majority government.

Northerners have watched the premier drop millions of dollars in Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins and Thunder Bay over recent weeks from the $100-million Northern Ontario Heritage Fund. And in an odd move, Wynne challenged other northern leaders to a debate without an election having been called. It is a sign that she thinks today’s budget will be defeated.

Horwath immediately accepted. It’s a safe bet Hudak will too.

The NDP isn’t a presence in the North for nothing. Horwath responded with plans of her own, including the possibility of bringing back the Northlander passenger train which was cancelled in 2012 in a now largely abandoned move to sell off the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission. And there are plans to “fix” northern transportation – a perennial sore spot – by twinning highways, adding new passing lanes, and improving winter road maintenance – an open sore this year in the North, with eight private contractors having been fined for sub-standard snow plowing this winter.

The giant Ring of Fire chromite deposited in the James Bay lowlands is a political football. It’s thought to contain some $60 billion in riches, and could be as big as the Sudbury basin, with all the accompanying economic benefits. All three parties say they would develop it faster. But it’s hard to say who is getting more mileage out of the Ring of Fire. The Liberals are taking heat for slow progress, so Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle on Monday announced $1 billion for infrastructure to develop the area. This, apparently, without a plan of where or what that infrastructure will be. (There is a tug of war between two companies in the area over east-west or north-south routes, and whether a road or rail line should be built.)

But the money had to be out there, or the Liberals would have taken a pounding from the opposition over its failure to deliver even modest progress. Fedeli says flat out the party would go for the “quick win” and develop the east-west route so Noront Resources could start mining metals from its Eagles Nest and Blackbird deposits, with material to be delivered to a smelter in Sudbury for processing. But whether that’s the right move for the larger development of the area is up for debate.

Regardless, the North won’t be a side issue this time around, lost in the fight over who will deliver a big new transit system in the GTA. This election will get expensive in the land of rock and trees, too.

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