THUNDER BAY – Kathleen Wynne stands firmly behind Liberal commitments that include free pre-kindergarten child care and the beginning steps of government-paid prescription drugs and dental care, though regional municipal leaders question why that money isn’t going to infrastructure renewal.
The premier was the final party leader to address the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association conference in Kenora late Thursday afternoon, capping a two-day stretch where Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford and Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath also made pre-campaign visits ahead of next month’s provincial election.
Wynne emphasized her government’s record of spending to improve care and provide opportunity across the province, including free post-secondary tuition for students from lower income families and drug coverage for youth under 25 and seniors over 65.
“Government has the responsibility to step up and do the things that people can’t do for themselves and to make sure we’re looking for those ways to help people to take part in the economy, to make sure they have the care they need, to make sure they are supported so they can be at their best,” Wynne said.
“Not to do everything for people and I don’t think government can do everything but we should be there to support and make sure we facilitate communities and individual families to be the best they can be.”
The new commitments introduced in the budget tabled earlier this year direct the province’s budget back into a multi-billion deficit.
Kenora mayor Dave Canfield thanked Wynne for previous measures that have allowed municipalities to upgrade the backbones of their communities but said there is more work to be done.
“We still have a massive, massive infrastructure deficit,” Canfield told Wynne during an open question and answer period. “How can you afford all these new programs when we can’t even fund the stuff we need today?”
Wynne, who earlier during her speech referred to the party’s budget as a “bold but not radical” plan, responded that the support is essential.
“How can we not continue to invest in infrastructure? How can we not invest in people whose kids can’t find mental health supports? How can we not invest in people who can’t pay for prescription medication,” Wynne said.
“These are people in your community. These are not people just in Southern Ontario. These are people in Northwestern Ontario who are having a hard time making ends meet. If we don’t invest in them now, they are going to be worse off and they are going to need more supports from your municipality.”
Canfield asked Wynne whether the Liberals would support a one per cent HST hike advocated for by the Association of Ontario Municipalities, with that revenue directed solely to rebuilding infrastructure.
Wynne earlier cited the province’s continued expansion of the Northern Highways Program and increased funding to the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund as examples of how her government has come to the table.
“We’re going to keep investing in infrastructure. I get how important that is. I know how many bridges you’ve got and how much support you need but I also know you have people in all of your communities who are the future who have present need and we need to invest in them as well.”
Wynne was also pressed on an intercommunity bus service announced late last year that was promised to align routes between the Ontario Northland Transit Commission serving Northeastern Ontario and subsidized private operations in Northwestern Ontario that leaders say has had the impact they were led to believe.
“We need to fill the gaps. Where there are gaps, where there are routes not being serviced, that’s where we need to put the subsidy,” Wynne said.
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