Well, in the wake of the release of the 2019 Budget, Prime Minister Trudeau is off to Thunder Bay where he will be hosting a Town Hall on the campus grounds of Lakehead University on Friday March 22nd. Indeed, the preparations for his arrival are already underway as the grounds of the C.J. Saunders Fieldhouse where the event will occur are being swept and tidied up from the accumulated grit of a harsh winter. This is apparently Trudeau’s first visit to Thunder Bay since 2016 which is a signal that the election campaign is already underway. The festivities get underway at 7 pm (but if you want a front row seat you need to register and arrive by 5:00 pm).
Thunder Bay can be considered a relatively politically safe place for the federal Liberals to have a Town Hall given the two ridings have returned mainly Liberals to Ottawa for nearly 100 years. Thunder Bay voters are actually very conservative voters in the sense that they dislike change and always do the same thing – that is, return Liberals to Ottawa. The only way they deviate from their inherent conservatism is to actually vote Conservative. Indeed, the last federal Conservative party politician who was elected was Robert Manion, who if memory serves me correctly, was around in the 1930s. Of course, there was MP Joe Commuzzi circa 2007 – who started as a Liberal but then switched to the Conservatives and served as a Minister– but he was not elected as a Conservative so my initial point stands.
So what issues will Prime Minister Trudeau have to face in Thunder Bay? Well, the audience is likely to be filled with gushing supporters who will hang on his every word and engage in numerous standing ovations despite the recent disillusionment over the SNC-Lavalin-Raybould Affair. Indeed, the Prime Minister is probably looking forward to an evening’s relief from the stress and acrimony of Ottawa. There is nonetheless the potential for some fireworks and charged questions on a number of topics should the Town Hall decide to deviate from what is likely to be a large pep rally. For those who might be interested, here are the parameters of just two interesting question areas.
What is the Federal Government going to do to help Thunder Bay address the December 2018 report by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director on relations between Indigenous People and the Thunder Bay Police Service? It is true that the local police are a municipal function and municipalities are creatures of the provinces, but it remains that First Nations and Indigenous peoples are a very important responsibility for the Federal government. The recommendations for the Thunder Bay Police Service are going to involve a substantial increase in expenditures on an already stretched municipal tax base. Is there any real federal financial assistance coming or is Thunder Bay on its own in dealing with this? Indeed, given that Thunder Bay is a regional centre for health and education services for area First Nations, what can the federal government do to assist in this regard?
As well, what is the Federal Government doing to actually implement its own growth plan for the Northern Ontario economy? All of us are familiar with the 2011 Northern Growth Plan released by the Ontario Liberal government which, over the course of the next 25 years, was supposed to assist the North in reversing its economic decline. Well after five years of the provincial Northern Growth Plan – the plan to end all plans – the population of the North remains flat, employment is down and the value of new investment is also down.
This lacklustre result has not deterred the Federal government from announcing its own Prosperity and Growth Strategy for Northern Ontario in April 2018 with twelve areas of action. However, since then there really has not been much to be seen and heard as to specifics of what this strategy entails, aside from mentioning the strategy whenever there is an announcement of federal money from FEDNOR as was the case in Sudbury in December 2018. Aside from this, there is little to be found in a Google News search when the term "Prosperity and Growth Strategy for Northern Ontario" is typed in. So, is there an actual Federal action strategy for Northern Ontario or is it just another election marketing ploy?
I guess we will have to wait until tomorrow night to see if we learn anything new. I for one expect there will indeed be some entertainment involved in this Town Hall Meeting. Who knows, maybe we'll even get yet another announcement of federal support and commitment for the Ring of Fire? At the very least, in an election year one might expect some federal infrastructure dollars to finish four-laning the highway to Nipigon.