By Mia Jensen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
When it comes to Northern Ontario, affordability is top of mind for NDP leader Andrea Horwath, who launched her campaign platform for the region in Sudbury on Monday.
“Life needs to be more affordable in the North,” Horwath said in her announcement at the Miners Monument in Bell Park.
“We need to fix the things that are broken, like our health-care system. We need to provide hope that the North can have a strong future. That’s what New Democrats know we can do as government.”
The 10-page Northern platform includes significant focus on improving health care and mental health services for the many underserviced regions on the province, including Greater Sudbury and its surrounding districts.
If elected premier in the June provincial election, Horwath promises her NDP government will hire 300 doctors for Northern Ontario, including 100 specialists and 40 mental health practitioners to improve local accessibility and reduce waitlists.
The party is also promising to expand French-language health services, bring back and expand a Sudbury midwifery program killed when Laurentian University cut the program during a restructuring process.
“We have a highway health care problem in the North because governments have ignored the health-care needs of northerners,”
Horwath said. “You have not gotten your fair share on so many fronts.”
The platform includes a plan to collaborate with the Ontario Medical Association to provide incentives and supports to attract health-care professionals to Northern communities, as well as promises to address longstanding issues with the Northern Health Travel Grant.
The program is meant to provide financial support for Northern Ontarians forced to travel long distances to access specialist medical care by reimbursing their travel expenses. Currently, residents travelling outside their communities for health services are eligible to apply for reimbursement at a rate of 41 cents per kilometre when travelling to a medical appointment and can claim $100 per night for a two-night hotel stay.
According to incumbent NDP Nickel Belt candidate France Gelinas, who served as the party’s Health and Long-Term Care critic, it’s a system that’s in desperate need of improvement.
She said civil service cuts have led to wait times of up to six months for reimbursements, forcing some people to consider giving up on their treatments, and claim amounts haven’t kept up with inflation.
“Some people have to go back to Toronto (for treatment) every two weeks,” Gelinas said. “It takes six months to get paid. They haven’t got enough money to pay for a hotel anymore. This is not equity.”
Horwath’s plan promises to cap the wait for reimbursement through that grant at 14 days.
The NDP would also declare the overdose crisis, which has had a significant impact on the North and in Sudbury in particular, a public health emergency.
A 2021 report from the province’s chief coroner found that northern cities have higher opioid-related death rates than the south, with Sudbury reporting the highest per capita deaths in Ontario with more than 50 per 100,000. North Bay, Thunder Bay, Timmins, and Sault Ste. Marie all trail close behind at 40 deaths per 100,000.
“It’s tragic to see what’s happening in Sudbury and in Northern communities,” Horwath said. “There’s just no doubt that Doug Ford and his government spent four years pretending there was no problem.
As a result, people have lost their lives, communities have suffered, and families have become heartbroken.”
Horwath said her party plans to expedite additional supervised consumption sites in the north, and invest in detox and rehab beds.
They also intend to implement universal mental health vare to provide access to services with OHIP cards, and 24/7 mental health crisis centres and mobile crisis services.
In addition to health care affordability, the NDP’s Northern plan also includes promises to:
– make high-speed internet available province-wide by 2025;
– build 6,000 new affordable housing and 3,600 supportive housing units;
– restore the Northlander train service and reconnect it to the Polar Express in Cochrane;
– work with First Nations communities to develop and support community-led solutions for housing, healthcare, and clean drinking water.
– establish community health centres in the Kenora, Cochrane and Sault Ste. Marie areas with services for Indigenous and francophone communities.
Despite the big promises, voters are still awaiting the NDP’s fully costed platform, so funding and budgeting questions remain up in the air. Horwath said that those details would be released shortly, but did not confirm a timeline.
Nonetheless, Horwath said she was committed to her plan.
“(These) things are important to us because we know they’re important to you,” she said. “They’re our priority because we know that they’re your priority.”
Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford this week also repeated a 2018 campaign promise to bring back the Northlander, touting its importance to boosting the economy and helping people travel to medical appointments.
Ford spent the weekend in the north with stops in Timmins, Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, and he is set to be in North Bay on Tuesday with the other party leaders for a debate on northern issues.
On Monday in Sudbury, flanked by four of her party’s northern candidates, three of them incumbents, Horwath said she’s not worried about Ford campaigning on territory where her party holds incumbent bench strength.
“I think Doug Ford’s trying to discover the north for the first time,” she said.
Mia Jensen is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the SUDBURY STAR. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI government funding.
-With files from Canadian Press.