THUNDER BAY – City leaders are returning home pleasantly surprised with their first interactions with the new Ontario government at a provincial conference earlier this week.
The-four member Thunder Bay delegation travelled to Ottawa for the Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference, where they secured meetings with 12 members of the new government and brought 18 community issues to their attention.
Coun. Joe Virdiramo, a member of the city’s intergovernmental affairs committee who was joined by Mayor Keith Hobbs, Coun. Iain Angus and city manager Norm Gale, said the new ministers and parliamentary assistants listened intently and seemed knowledgeable of issues, despite being new to their roles.
“It was a very good exchange of conversations with them in relation to our needs and our city. We felt that we were being listened to and they were taking many notes in relation to the issues being presented,” Virdiramo said.
After having two city representatives – Thunder Bay-Superior North MPP Michael Gravelle and former Thunder Bay-Atikokan MPP Bill Mauro – within the Liberal government during the party’s 15 years in power, Thunder Bay is now on the outside with no representation at the Progressive Conservative caucus table.
Virdiramo said the delegation discussed not having that voice within the government but was assured local interests would receive attention.
Those first meetings are primarily introductory and include a lot of listening, Angus said.
“They were well informed of the issues, were quite knowledgeable and asked the right kinds of questions but it will take them some time,” Angus said of the new government.
“The previous government we had been working with them for 15 years. We had a one-on-one relationship with a number of the ministers, with the premier, so it’s going to take us time to build that level of not only relationship but trust in that we’re not going to snow them and come with our hand out but we’re going to provide solutions that make sense for the Northwest, for us in Thunder Bay as well as the people we serve.”
Premier Doug Ford addressed the conference on Monday but did not participate in meetings with the local delegations.
Though they didn’t have any face time with the new premier, Ford’s words gives municipal politicians an idea of how to present ideas to the new government, Virdiramo said.
“We want to get a yes answer and the way to get that is to support what the government is trying to do and support us in the goals they have. If our goals are the same, I think we’ll be successful,” Virdiramo said.
“The premier said they want return on investment. What is it going to cost? What is it going to save us and how are we going to do it?”
The delegation met with Robin Martin, the parliamentary assistant to Health Minister Christine Elliott, and discussed the alternate level of care challenges in the local health care system and its impact on hospital gridlock.
The issue has been compounded by a personal support worker shortage that has prevented St. Joseph’s Care Group from opening a number of long-term care beds at Hogarth Riverview Manor that could be easing pressure at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.
“One of the things we suggested was to provide more training for people to become (personal support workers) and to have services in place,” Virdiramo said. “If we have people coming into the community, targeting specific jobs and specific skills we need in the community, that would help us.”
Virdiramo said a session with Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Michael Tibollo indicates a replacement for the Thunder Bay District Jail, which was first promised by the former Liberal government, is on track to go ahead.
Members of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association were provided an opportunity to meet with the cabinet, minus Ford.
Angus said that meeting included the need for intercommunity bus service and a solution for non-urgent medical patient transport receiving support from Greg Rickford, the MPP for Kenora-Rainy River and minister holding responsibility for northern development. Angus said he does not know whether money that had been announced late last year by the former government for intercommunity bus transportation service actually flowed to providers.
The trip also included meetings with Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath and interim Liberal leader John Fraser.