THUNDER BAY – A provincial candidates forum hosted this week by Thunder Bay’s business community was marked by the absence of local Progressive Conservative candidates.
The Thunder Bay–Superior North candidates forum organized by the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce and Anishnawbe Business Professional Association went ahead without PC candidate Peng You, resulting in a discussion with few major policy disagreements.
The forum is now available to watch online. The Thunder Bay–Atikokan candidates forum, which PC candidate Kevin Holland likewise skipped, will be available later Friday.
PC candidates across the province have been notably absent from local debates in the lead-up to the June 2 election.
In an interview, You would neither confirm nor deny that the party had advised him to skip the event. He said he planned to be door-knocking in Nipigon on the day of the forum.
“There are so many debates, if we go to every one, that’s endless,” he said. “I’d rather go door knocking than spend time inside of an office or in front of a camera.”
PC candidates have participated in the chamber’s forum in past elections. In an email, the party said its candidates are “focused on knocking on doors and speaking with constituents directly.”
That left candidates Shelby Ch’ng (Liberal), Lise Vaugeois (NDP), Tracey MacKinnon (Green), and Kathy Suutari (New Blue Party) to present their visions for the region in a forum pre-recorded Wednesday at the Whalen Building.
Ch’ng leaned on her history as the former owner of a small bridal shop in the city’s south end to slam the Ford government’s record, blaming her decision to close the business partly on constantly-shifting regulations during the pandemic.
“You can imagine my heartache when I shuttered my business after nine years of making payroll and building a team that felt like family,” she said. “Doug Ford’s chaotic decision-making cost us big-time.”
Vaugeois emphasized the need to rebuild public services.
“Every community in our region needs quality public healthcare, including mental health care, and quality public education with small class sizes, educational supports, and well-maintained buildings where we live.”
MacKinnon stayed laser-focused on poverty, promoting the Green pledge to phase in a universal basic income, starting by doubling payments for the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works.
“The pandemic exposed cracks in the system,” she said. “We need to fix the poverty crisis. We need a basic income now. Systemic poverty is the root cause of many health and social problems, not to mention the economic toll.”
MacKinnon several times drew on her own experiences, saying she understands challenges residents face on issues like housing in a way politicians usually don’t.
“As someone who’s been homeless and living on the street, I can’t even imagine going back there – now here I am, doing this,” she said. “I bring to the table that lived experience piece."
Suutari promised the New Blue Party would cut government spending while doing more about issues like health care and on-reserve services.
“We’re committed to downsizing the government, because we feel the government is overrun,” she said. “In order to have more funds for Indigenous communities, rural communities where health care is not available, without the distance, we would provide funding, we would provide anything to move health care closer to the community.”
At points, Suutari promoted fringe views imported from the United States, saying Ontario schools are pushing “critical race theory” (CRT), a term weaponized by Fox News and other far-right outlets to attack teaching students about racism.
“I think part of our tax money could be apportioned out to home schooling, because a lot of constituents don’t feel the quality of education is there," she said. “They’re bringing in certain topics that a lot of [people] don’t agree with, like CRT training and stuff like that."
Vaugeois said voters shouldn’t buy New Blue promises to both shrink government and improve services.
“I’d like to push back a bit on the idea of smaller government,” she said. “What we need is a fair distribution of tax resources. You can’t talk about small government and then say, but we’re going to give First Nations money.”
Asked about the two most important issues facing the region, all candidates but Suutari mentioned housing.
“I’ve travelled 900 kilometres throughout the region – housing is number one,” said Ch’ng, adding housing availability has become a major crisis in smaller communities like Terrace Bay and Schreiber.
The Liberals have pledged to strengthen rent control and create an Ontario Home Building Corporation to accelerate construction of affordable housing.
The NDP has promised home equity loans for first-time home buyers and a plan to build more affordable and supportive housing, while Vaugeois said cooperative housing should also be part of the solution.
All candidates slammed the PC record on health care, citing a report from Canada’s military that found abuse and neglect occur routinely in some Ontario long-term care homes.
“Our seniors built Ontario, and it’s absolutely atrocious what happened to them in the past years,” said Ch’ng. “The heartbreak and the memories should never fade. The Liberals have a plan to do away with for-profit [LTC] housing, so that as grandma needs care, it’s not going to be emptying her pocket to fill Doug Ford and his friends’ pockets.”
Vaugeois called a new elder housing complex built by Whitesand First Nation an example of local care solutions the province should support more strongly.
“We know that health care needs to be provided in place when it’s needed, not down the highway three hours away where people are separated from their families,” she said.
The province also needs to do more to confront a growing opioid crisis, candidates agreed.
“Our health care systems are overwhelmed with addiction and crisis,” said Ch’ng. “As a city councillor, we spend one third of our tax base on police, fire, and EMS, with disproportionate calls for mental health. We need to upstream this [to the province]."
That prompted one of the forum’s few direct confrontations, with Vaugeois saying Liberal cuts and downloading had set the stage for current crises.
“I want to remind people that we can’t say the Liberal [party] is coming from a clean slate,” she said. “They’re coming from a history of neglect over 15 years, which undermined our health care [and] education systems to the point that when COVID hit, we were in crisis.”
Asked how they'd support businesses with pandemic recovery and labour force challenges, Ch’ng noted a Liberal plan to lower corporate taxes for small businesses that faced heavy COVID-related losses, and touted a promise to lower the cost of before- and after-school care to $10 a day.
“I think we can unlock women in the workforce by providing after- and before-school child care,” she said. “Child care has always been a struggle for women who work, and we need that labour force now more than ever.”
Vaugeois pointed to the NDP plan to bring more foreign-trained nurses and other health professionals into the system by recognizing credentials more quickly, but said wages also need to rise.
“Minimum wage needs to go up in a calculated, predictable way, because business more than anything needs to be able to predict what's coming,” she said. “I think that increase to minimum wage [would] help encourage people to come back into the workforce.”
MacKinnon noted the Greens will make tuition free for “green economy” jobs, and agreed minimum wage must increase.
“It needs to go up to $18 to $20 at least, to help families out of poverty, to help people go back to work, find a decent job, be able to provide for their family.”
Candidates expressed disappointment over You's decision not to attend.
"I think it tells us the PCs aren't prepared to defend their record," said Vaugeois. "Otherwise, why aren’t they here?”
The decision showed a worrying lack of independence from party leadership, Ch'ng said.
"In the North, we need different solutions and we need people to stand up to government, no matter what stripe they are. We need a candidate who knows how to say no when it’s appropriate, because not showing up in Northern Ontario is not well respected.”
Voters can learn more and verify they’re registered to vote at the Elections Ontario website.
Advance polls opened in Thunder Bay on Thursday.