The five candidates vying to be the next leader of the Ontario Liberal Party squared off in a debate in Thunder Bay last week.
TBnewswatch spoke to all five of the leadership hopefuls, asking them the same series of questions.
Nate Erskine-Smith has been the MP for Beaches-York since 2015.
Q: How do you see the rebuild for the Liberal Party in the province? How would the party regain the two provincial seats in Thunder Bay and perhaps pick up the seats in Kenora-Rainy River and Kiiwetinoong?
Erskine-Smith: We used to have many cabinet ministers from the north, and now we come in third place pretty consistently in too many ridings.
This is about building and rebuilding an active presence in every single community and showing up as the leader repeatedly, and I have done that already in the course of this leadership and I'm going to keep doing that.
It's also about delivering solutions in answer to the concerns of people here in northern Ontario.
There are common concerns across the province, including here in Northern Ontario on housing, health care, and education. But there are acute concerns on mental health and addictions, on attracting and retaining health care professionals, making sure there's real economic opportunity on housing, making sure that we're not applying the same solutions from the south to the north.
We're actually looking at working with the municipalities to build non-market housing that we so desperately need. In the end, you [have] to listen to [those who live and work here] to develop that policy.
[I will also say that] integrity matters more than geography, and how you act matters more than where you're from. I don't want to sit in a single room in Toronto and develop policy for Northern Ontario, [you develop it] by having really strong representatives.”
Q: What is your intention as leader for the resource sector? How do you balance environmental impacts to the land around forestry?
Erskine-Smith: We need to make sure that any resource extraction is sustainable [and] that the company is involved [in giving] back to those communities in terms of revenues generated.
Ultimately, I think as far as partnership with industry [stakeholders] with communities here, especially if you look at the mining sector, you can't just put a hole in the ground and have the company leave. You got to make sure that the community looked after during the mining operation and after the mining operation.
[We also have to] make sure that the resources are properly put into the community that's seen the resource extracted.
This also really requires economic reconciliation; When you look at the impact on Indigenous communities, this isn't a matter of a government coming in, jumping on a bulldozer and say we're going to [build] the Ring of Fire before you even consult with the [surrounding communities]. This is about saying we want real equity participation, real benefits for the communities that are impacted and that's how you deliver economic reconciliation.”
Q: Do you intend to consult with the First Nations groups that are impacted by the Ring of Fire development?
Erskine-Smith: In my experience in federal politics, I've seen better and I've seen worse and it's always been better where there's been active relationship building and partnership.
Before you have a project that is determined to proceed, you have to sit down [and develop a partnership with local leaders] to make sure you are realizing real benefits for the communities impacted. I have been working to build relationships with Indigenous leadership and if I'm the leader, I will continue to do that work.
We need critical minerals to be developed to deliver on the clean transition and for jobs here in Northern Ontario, but you only are gong do that successfully if you've partnered with in a real way, indigenous communities.”
Q: Do you have a strategy to recruit and retain health care workers, especially for smaller markets within Northwestern Ontario?
Erskine-Smith: There's an especially acute [healthcare] challenge here in Northern Ontario, and we need to make sure that we are looking at pay, working conditions and [at] specific incentives to attract people to underserved communities [as well as] greater tuition subsidies.
We [also] need to make sure we are expanding education spaces, but especially for people who were born and raised here to attend those spaces because going [to] be more likely to stay here.
[We also need to] look at long term subsidies, instead of a lump sum after one year of being in Northern Ontario, if you [commit] to the long term, you're going to realize the full subsidy of your tuition.”
Q: How do you plan to address housing shortages across Northwestern Ontario, particularly in smaller communities?
Erskine-Smith: There are nine communities that have public transit across Northern Ontario, and you need an integrated strategy on housing and transit, but especially on the housing question because not every Northern community has transit. You have to make sure that you are delivering greater density, we’re not talking about towers but maximizing the use of land.
[What I’ve heard] from speaking with mayors all across Northern Ontario, developers are not banging down the door to build housing, and in smaller communities in particular mayors are putting up plans saying come develop there. There's a deal here to be had and we still don't see the development.
So what you need [is] the provincial government to show leadership in the non-market housing space. You need provincial dollars for housing and infrastructure so we are able to build non market housing and affordable rental housing that we know the market is not going to deliver.
We [also] need [the] government to show leadership and partnership with nonprofits such as social service administration boards.
The last thing I would say is we need to make sure when we think of the mental health and addiction crisis and the impact of homelessness, we need to make sure that [there is] housing [available] for everyone to make sure we get people off the street.”
The leadership election was called following the June 2022 election where the party won just eight seats and saw the resignation of Steven Del Duca, now the mayor of Vaughan.
The ranked ballots will be cast on Nov. 25 and 26 with the new leader selected on Dec. 2.