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Wynne peppered with town hall questions

Kathleen Wynne discussed everything from insurance rates to social services to the effect of the recent minimum wage hike on small businesses while meeting with about 300 concerned citizens in Thunder Bay.

THUNDER BAY – Premier Kathleen Wynne got full marks for facing the public at a town hall meeting in Thunder Bay on Wednesday night.

But her answers left some in the audience wanting more.

“It was an interesting evening. There was good debate and I thought it was well-rounded questions all around. And the premier answered some of them,” said George Saarinen, a trustee with Lakehead Public Schools who joined about 300 people at the Italian Cultural Centre, where Wynne fielded about 17 questions and then met one-on-one with several others in attendance.

“I thought she’s listening to people. I hope there’s follow-up in a lot of these cases. We in the Northwest are a different entity and we need funding in a lot of areas.”

Charla Robinson, president of the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce, asked Wynne whether or not the province had solutions to the hardships being caused by Bill 148, which raised the minimum wage 22 per cent to $14-an-hour.

“It’s becoming a real challenge to make a business profitable in Ontario right now,” Robinson said, adding cap-and-trade and high hydro rates are adding to the problem.

Wynne had a ready response to the anticipated question.

“If you live in Ontario and work full-time, you should be able to look after yourself and your family,” the premier said, pointing out the province has made reductions to the small-business tax to help alleviate rising costs.

“The reality is that thousands of businesses are already paying a living wage.”

Robinson said that’s not good enough.

“I didn’t hear a lot of support for business. We’re concerned about what’s being placed on business with all of the changes to Bill 148. We’re talking significant costs,” she said.

The 75-minute session featured a variety of questions, starting with a call for a province-wide insurance program.

Wynne said it’s unlikely.

She was also questioned on the need to maintain both public and Catholic school systems, who are running advertisements seeking to pull students from each other. Wynne said that’s a bad idea, adding boards across the province should look to share resources where possible. But, she said, she plans on maintaining the status quo.

“We’re not going to move away from the systems that are rooted in the history of the province. We’re not going there,” Wynne said.

Atikokan Mayor Dennis Brown wanted assurances about the future of generating stations in both his community and Thunder Bay.

Wynne promised the power needed would be available, but did not promise where it would come from.

Teacher Lisa Fiddler wanted to know about youth mental-health services, particularly for those coming from Far North communities.

“Children are dying,” she said.

Wynne acknowledged the shortfalls, saying society is playing catch-up to the needs of the North and promised more supports will be put in place.

Mishkeegogaming First Nation’s Erin Bottle told Wynne that 84 First Nations people have died in the streets since she arrived in the city in 2011 and asked what the premier is prepared to do to reduce crippling poverty.

“The system is built to not build us up,” Bottle said, asking for increases in social assistance.

“We’re going to do everything we can to reform the social assistance program as it exists now,” was Wynne’s response.

While the Q&A sessions was mostly peaceful, tensions boiled over toward then end, when audience member Keith Ritchie shouted out questions about the province’s controversial Hydro One sale.

“Hydro One wasn’t yours to sell,” he said, Wynne responding that Ontario needed the proceeds from the partial sale to fund infrastructure projects long overlooked by previous governments.

The premier also fielded three questions about injured workers, agreeing to meet with an advocacy group, and two about skyrocketing property taxes in Schreiber.

Leith Dunick

About the Author: Leith Dunick

A proud Nova Scotian who has called Thunder Bay home since 2002, Leith is Dougall Media's director of news, but still likes to tell your stories too. Wants his Expos back and to see Neil Young at least one more time. Twitter: @LeithDunick
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