All-candidates’ night 2022 highlighted the strong slate of Algoma-Manitoulin options

Moderator Neil Debassige introduces the candidates from left to right, Progressive Conservative Cheryl Fort, incumbent Mike Mantha and Liberal candidate Tim Vine.

M’CHIGEENG—The 2022 Expositor All-candidates’ Night was held at Manitoulin Secondary School on Wednesday, May 18 at 7 pm and, as expressed by incumbent MPP and NDP candidate Mike Mantha this election has presented the strongest slate of challengers he has faced since first coming to office.

Manitoulin Expositor publisher Alicia McCutcheon welcomed everyone to the proceedings and provided a land acknowledgement of the Anishinaabe of Mnidoo Mnising, particularly neighbouring M’Chigeeng First Nation. 

The evening was moderated by educator and star of Fuel the Fire TV Neil Debassige who oversaw an evening of political discourse that was long on policy and partisan passion yet decidedly civil in demeanor.

Candidates for the three main provincial parties were on hand for the debate: Cheryl Fort for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party (PC), incumbent Mike Mantha for the New Democratic Party (NDP) and Tim Vine for the Ontario Liberal Party. Both Ron Kosti of the New Blue Party and Carolyn Legault of the Green Party were invited to the debate, but were unable to attend due to conflicting schedules.

The evening began with six-minute presentations by each candidate, followed by a three-minute rebuttal opportunity for each candidate. Once those niceties were completed, the floor was opened for questions from the audience. The order of presentation was determined by lot before the start of debate and Mr. Debassige read out a short bio for each candidate before inviting them to address the crowd from the podium. When it came to answering questions from the floor, each candidate remained at their socially distanced assigned desks.

In their opening addresses, each candidate also provided an acknowledgement of the Indigenous traditional territories upon which the evening was being hosted.

First up on the firing line was Progressive Conservative candidate Cheryl Fort. “Cheryl Fort is the mayor of the Township of Hornepayne. Cheryl enjoys time with her three grown children,” Mr. Debassige read from her official bio. “Cheryl is an avid volunteer; served as a town councillor, school board trustee, library board chair, hospital board member and Legion youth education chair. While working as both mayor and CP locomotive engineer, she also serves as a Northern Zone director for the Ontario Good Roads Association.”

Ms. Fort highlighted her experiences as a community builder and referenced the PC focus on “re-building” the Ontario economy, asserting that Algoma-Manitoulin needs to have a voice at the table when government decisions are being made. She alleged the PCs had inherited a health system “in shambles” and that the province needs to “move forward,” putting forward a case for the PCs as the party that can make that happen. Ms. Fort repeated several times in her address that Algoma-Manitoulin needs to elect her to represent the riding in the provincial legislature at Queen’s Park. She pointed to her success as a municipal politician “in just three years” in rebuilding her own community of Hornepayne, attracting $20 million in new investments, including a new hotel and airport.

Liberal Tim Vine was next up to the firing line, emphasizing the Liberal’s “progressive and responsible” plan to move Ontario forward. He noted that “affordability” is the key issue he is hearing at the doorsteps in his campaigning. Mr. Vine highlighted the OLP plan to hire 138,000 new long-term care workers and to improve the lives of those living with disabilities, including a 20 percent rise in Ontario Disability Support Program payments. Mr. Vine pointed to his career in health administration (he is the former co-CEO and vice president corporate services at Manitoulin Health Centre and now chief financial officer at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Elliot Lake) as providing him with a strong background in tackling the challenges facing Ontario’s health sector—which he admits will require complicated solutions to complex problems.

“But I like complicated puzzles,” he noted, adding that he is good at finding solutions that work at solving complicated issues.

Mr. Vine pointed to PC leader Doug Ford’s plan to spend $10 billion building a highway in southern Ontario (413) that “will save a handful of his wealthy friends 30 seconds off their drive,” asserting the Liberals will spend that money on shoring up the province’s health system instead.

NDP candidate Mike Mantha then brought forward his party’s vision for the future, noting that he is very interested in continuing to represent Algoma-Manitoulin despite facing the “two strongest candidates I have faced since first elected in 2011” which he applauded as being “good for all of us as it brings out the best in us.”

Mr. Mantha pointed to his party’s advocacy for expanding health care and combating the cost of living so that “the seven generations to come” can enjoy a better life through affordable housing and a living wage.

He recalled the success the community attained in securing the MS Chi-Cheemaun ferry’s ability to dock when low water levels in Lake Huron threatened its ability to land at South Baymouth and noted the actions of the Ford government in selling off long-term care to private companies. “That has to stop,” he said, asserting that the dollars being syphoned off from long-term care in profits would be better spent on providing better resident care.

Mr. Mantha tapped into discontent with the maintenance of highways in the province, vowing that an NDP government would ensure that both Highway 17 and Highway 11 would be designated as class one highways. He vowed that an NDP government would increase health care worker numbers dramatically and immediately increase PSW wages by five dollars an hour.

“I have spent 11 years fighting for the people of Algoma-Manitoulin,” he said. “I am not planning to give up my job to my opponents.

In their rebuttals, each candidate essentially reiterated their main platform messages.

Howland’s Keith Harfield asked the first question, directed at each candidate as to what steps they would take to strengthen the farming community if Doug Ford were to appoint them minister of agriculture.

Ms. Fort said “I would do what I have already done,” pointing to a consultation group she helped set up in her area, before going on to say that “we need to fight fuel prices” and that she would listen to what farmers are saying they need.

Liberal candidate Tim Vine noted that his appointment by Mr. Ford to a cabinet post would be an “astounding act of bi-partisanship.” But he related that agriculture is a vital part of the Ontario economy and he had started out his working life overseeing the finances of an 8,000 acre national agricultural operation. “I know I can’t tell a farmer how to farm his land, but I know enough to help.”

Mr. Mantha noted that his party has a fully costed plan that will invest in roads, education and health care, including a pharma-care plan. When it comes to agriculture, he said the NDP would stop paving over farmland and support the supply management system. He advised Mr. Harfield to look at the platform documents he had available at his booth.

Mike Wilton, water steward and environmentalist decried the deterioration of the Ministry of Natural Resources and dilution of its mandate to protect the province’s environment with the inclusion of mining and forestry within its purview.

Ms. Fort responded by saying “I am with you,” before going on to relate her work with the forestry industry in her region. “We have to listen to people in the forestry industry,” she said, pointing to the positive impact a biomass operation in her region is having and the important role that Indigenous consultation played in its development.

John Finlay of Honora Bay, asked each of the candidates to outline why they would be the best choice to deal with the lack of high speed internet connectivity and cell service in the region, without simply reciting their party’s platform promises.

Mr. Mantha noted that his utmost concern is in bringing broadband service to Northern Ontario, but noted that the challenge is in working with the federal government and the intransigence of the federal government as well as the large providers such as Bell and Rogers. He said that providing support for local providers will be central to finding solutions. “It is an essential service,” he said.

Mr. Vine noted that cell service is very spotty where he lives near Blind River and that the trans-Canada corridor should not have gaps in its service, or on any highway for that matter. He pointed to the highway to Chapleau as “a dark road” and that a lack of cell service in that area is a huge issue in terms of safety. “It could be a matter of life and death,” he said.

Ms. Fort noted that she had first-hand experience in the challenges of poor cell service, having had a flat on a section of Highway 17 near Massey, that did not have service, luckily having been taught how to change a tire by her father. She said she would not stop pushing “until that voice was heard,” adding that service is essential.

Student Willow Fogal expressed concerns about the direction that education has been taking, particularly during the pandemic and virtual learning, how split classes are impacting youth and what each candidate, without simply stating partisan policy, would do to “make education better” and she expressed concerns on the kind of world being left for youth by the present generations.

Mr. Vine said that education has gone through a great deal during the pandemic. “I am pretending to be a politician,” he said of his approach to dealing with issues, “I probably have more education than I should,” but added “I am a Liberal because their plan is good.” Mr. Vine pointed to the Liberal plan to include an optional Grade 13 to address the issues of small schools and limited options for rural students to follow their career aspirations. He also touched on environmental issues, noting the plan to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Mr.  Mantha said he was going to “speak from my gut” in answering the question. He said that “for me, education is way up there,” and voiced the importance of maintaining a safe environment for staff and students in schools. He encouraged students to aim high in their aspirations, but to also remember where they came from and to consider coming back to their home communities to ply their skills.

Ms. Fort noted that she too had gone to a small high school and experienced the challenges this presents. She said that increasing financial literacy in school curricula is important so that, when school is done and one goes out, gets a job, seeks a mortgage and starts a family, it can be challenging. “I live that personally through my own children who are at that point,” she said.

George Williamson of Little Current, a personal support worker (PSW), noted that he took up that career after spending 12 years in the south in order to be able to move back to Manitoulin. He suggested that the current shortage in PSWs and other care workers might be alleviated somewhat by allowing students to get on-the-job training at health care facilities on the ground, rather than travelling for hours outside of their communities to go to school, especially given the cost of transportation.

Mr. Mantha responded that a lot comes down to affordability. He agreed that the lifestyle in the North “is a little bit different” than that of the south. He pointed to the cost of fuel and insurance as areas where regulation is needed to control spiralling costs.

Ms. Fort pointed to the PC government’s removal of the licence plate sticker fee and the agreement with the federal government to provide $10 a day childcare by 2025, maintaining the 10 percent tuition cut and increasing the minimum wage as examples of how her party is working to make life more affordable.

Mr. Vine noted that the current rise in costs is global in nature and problematic for any government to tackle in the short term. But he pointed to the Liberal plan to implement a $25 minimum wage floor for PSWs and the return of the ability for collective bargaining as potentially providing some relief. The Liberal commitment to 10 days of sick paid leave will also help alleviate some of the stress in the health care system.

Retired teacher and entrepreneur Lisa Corbiere-Addison focussed on affordability, noting that her business could not afford 10 paid sick days on top of all of the other hits that have come during the pandemic and she also pointed to the lack of Indigenous education in the Ontario curriculum.

Mr. Vine said that small businesses, which are the engine that drives the Northern economy, are critically important to the province’s economic health, highlighting the need to balance policy in such a way that does not negatively impact those businesses, such as tax exemptions for smaller businesses. On the Indigenous education front, the Liberal candidate said that Indigenous history has too often been downplayed in the education system. “Not only was it one of the main recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” he said, “it’s the right thing to do.”

Ms. Fort pointed to the money that has flowed into the region from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation, streamlining of apprenticeships, internships and other skilled labour programs as important business supports. But the second question she said really hit home for her personally, as she is an Indigenous woman. “First Nation curriculum is important to me,” she said. Ms. Fort said she did not have the opportunity to learn about her history in school, but her own children took the opportunity to teach their colleagues through their own school projects.

Mr. Mantha said that it was important that children are able to learn in their own language. “It makes sense,” he said. When it came to small business, he said the NDP would provide rounds of small business support as long as it is needed.

Corey Stacinski, manager of the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre, (and sporting a Liberal button) asked the candidates why any Indigenous voter would consider voting for their party, given there was no mention by any party leader of Indigenous issues during the televised leadership debate.

Mr. Mantha pointed to the lack of potable water in many Indigenous communities, noting that it is time to stop the ping pong ball game played by the province and federal government over jurisdictions. He challenged “we” as government for daring to not address the issues facing First Nation communities.

Mr. Vine pointed to the “honour of the Crown” as being central to living up to the truth of the past and the need for the return of a Minister of Indigenous Relations in the province. “We need to work to a Minister of Indigenous Reconciliation whose sole job is repairing our relationships.”

Ms. Fort said that the question is complicated as Indigenous people in Canada are not “Canada’s Indigenous people, or ‘our people.’ I think having a voice at the table is where we need to go.”

Bill Cranston of Mindemoya asked the candidates where they were going to find the thousands of PSWs and other health professionals, given the long turnaround time necessary to train them and the erosion of perceptions of work in the health system. He went on to ask why the price of gas cannot be controlled the same way liquor is through the LCBO.

Ms. Fort said it was that toughest question she has faced and apologized that she really did not have an answer.

Mr. Vine noted that the free market can pose challenges, but that multinationals must pay their fair share of taxes. “We need to see why those prices are so high,” he said. “We need to find regional solutions.”

“Tim hit it right on the head,” said Mr. Mantha. “The last time the federal government had anything to say about gas prices was when the government bought PetroCanada,” he said. He went on to suggest that the province should streamline the ability of foreign-trained health professionals get into their professions. The best place to have a heart attack in Toronto is in a taxi cab, because the driver is probably a doctor.” (The federal government sold off the last of its shares in Petro-Canada near the end of the Chretien Liberal government era, having first purchased the company as a window into the industry during the tenure of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.)

A questioner who identified herself as Roxanne and a registered nurse, noted that health professionals cannot afford to work in their trade. She pointed to the cost of gas, as a case in point, explaining that the only Island home care nurse she is aware of, lives in Espanola and is not appropriately reimbursed for the gas to come to Manitoulin clients.

A young Conservative volunteer identified as Sheldon asked Mr. Mantha why he should be re-elected after being in power for 11 years. He noted that the Owen Sound Transportation Corporation Board does not have a representative, although Mr. Mantha was tourism critic.

Mr. Mantha said that not only is the board a challenge, he pointed to the loss of the volunteer navy aboard the ferry which would advocate for services on the Island. “The destination shouldn’t be the Chi-Cheemaun,” he said. “It should be Tobermory or Manitoulin Island.”

Mr. Vine said that cronyism lies at the core. “It’s not just the OSTC,” he said. “It is a politics of friends, cronyism that goes right to the premier’s office,” he said. “A politics of friends and enemies is not the politics that Ontario was built on.”

“I saw the Chi-Cheemaun for the first time recently,” said Ms. Fort. “It’s not just picking and choosing. We have to ensure the applications are there.”

Linda Williamson, an RPN, pointed to the challenge of trying to make a living in part-time jobs. She noted that she had heard how many tax dollars each candidate’s party was going to spend, but pointed out she is 67 years old and unable to retire as she cannot pay the cost of rent, food and fuel as it is, without even more taxes.

Mr. Mantha agreed affordability is an issue. He pointed to the pharmacare and affordable housing proposals of the NDP that would bring some relief. “Instead of paying with your credit card, you will pay with your OHIP card,” he said.

“The system has failed you,” said Mr. Vine. He noted that under the Liberal plan, no one making under $250,000 would pay more income tax. He also pointed out that the system is still a long way away from equal pay for equal value of work. “Can we afford four more years of Doug Ford?” he asked.

Ms. Fort pointed to the avowed aim of the Progressive Conservative Party to keep taxes down and work together to find solutions.

Mildred Kelly asked where all the new affordable housing would be built, noting that currently it seems to be on good arable farmland in southern Ontario.

Ms. Fort said that would be a partnership between municipalities and the contractors.

Mr. Vine said that land speculation has to be tackled, noting that the value of agricultural land for housing has placed it in grave danger, given the ideology of the current government.

Mr. Mantha touted his party’s housing-first strategy and its opposition to ministerial zoning orders that have declared open season on the green belt.