Those who read this weekly column have little doubt on how much pride I take in being from Northern Ontario. Some may wonder the reason that I love to share such sentiments and emotions. Quite simply, as is frequently the case, we often take for granted some of the things we treasure most until we don’t have them. Being first elected as MPP back in 2011, I spend much of my life in Toronto as well as what seems an endless eternity of weekly return trips on the road to the riding. Suffice to say, I am well aquatinted with our highways and driving conditions.
As I write this week’s column I have just completed a week of clinics on Manitoulin with more coming next week in the Northern part of the riding. This week’s clinic tour was highly successful with a great turnout of individuals wanting to meet with me to share concerns. This week the number one issue was predominantly the less than satisfactory winter road maintenance service.
Before another word is said on this matter, I want to be perfectly clear, such complaints are no reflection whatsoever upon the dedicated equipment operators. They are out clearing roads, no matter what the weather or time of day, doing their utmost to keep Ontario highways safe for all of us – generally with little public appreciation. They do their very best, day in and day out, given the equipment they have and the territory they must cover. So I doff my hat to them for the valuable service they provide.
The problem lies not behind the wheel of the ploughs and sanders, but rather with Ministry of Transportation bureaucrats who look out from their ivory towers far below. If only they had to be in the driver’s seats daily that you and I occupy, maybe then they’d have a more realistic understanding.
My Northern New Democrat colleagues and I have long been challenging successive Conservative and Liberal governments to take positive steps to do more to protect the lives of Northern Ontario travellers in winter. Unfortunately, neither government truly grasps the realities that we endure year, after year after year.
Northern drivers and families have waited long enough. We deserve nothing less than to know that our roads are safe during the long winter months. NDP MPP Guy Bourgoin’s private member’s bill, Making Northern Ontario Highways Safer, 2019 would have helped to prevent loss of lives and life altering injuries resulting from poorly-maintained winter highways in the North. The bill would have ensured that highways 11 and 17, the main link for people and commerce, are maintained with the province’s strictest requirements for snow removal. By bumping these highways up to Class 1 – the same as all 400 series highways and the QEW – it would require clear snow within eight hours of the end of a snowfall.
In the Legislature I have repeatedly tried to impress upon Doug Ford and the Minister of Transportation how inadequate the services are for our region, given our weather patterns and vast size. I also pointed out that last year the government issued $291,000 in penalties against highway maintenance contractors who violated their service agreement, of which the largest penalties were levied against contractors in Sault Ste. Marie who also maintain roads in Algoma. Penalties are levied when contractors fail to meet the requirements to keep the roads safe, such as plowing the roads quickly after a snowstorm or salting the roads adequately.
Unfortunately the government showed that they are perfectly happy to let northerners roll the dice when they get on the roads in the winter. They killed the bill in its second reading. I asked the Premier outright why he thinks that families of Algoma-Manitoulin should have to settle for service from a private contractor with the worst compliance record in Ontario. The answer was unresponsive.
In the same light, some time ago I was approached by the Northeastern Ontario Mayors’ Group as well as by numerous business operators with complaints about the abysmal access to the Ontario DriveTest in the North that we all must contend with. I raised the issue with the Minister of Transportation informing her that DriveTest Centers are not open frequently enough to meet the needs of Northerners. I informed her, for example, that between December 2017 and April 2018 not a single test date could be scheduled in Chapleau. As well, the Town of Dubreuilville had only 3 scheduled dates in the entire 2018 calendar year. The town of White River also had only 3 dates scheduled from March through October.
Business operators explain that when they need to hire a person with a particular license qualifications, they often have to wait weeks or months on end for an opportunity when a test centre will be open in a community near to them. Otherwise, they have to pay the person’s travel time, accommodations and perhaps meals to go to a permanent location such as Sault Ste. Marie. For small business operators this may pose unacceptable limitations on them. For private citizens this can also be a financial stress that they can ill afford.
Another complaint is that while test dates are posted months in advance, frequently the TransCanada or other main highways must be closed due to inclement weather and accidents. Here in the North, when test dates are cancelled for such reasons, they are never rescheduled. People just have to wait and compete for an appointment during the next scheduled date – which could be months down the road.
I have twice written to the Minister of Transportation indicating that the level of service we receive would not be acceptable anywhere in Ontario south of the French River. It does not meet the needs of Northerners.
The minister’s response has twice been beyond disappointing, showing a complete lack of understanding or regard for the needs of Northerners. In her explanation for reduced access to the test center appointments the minister wrote, “The ministry and DriveTest have taken weather conditions into consideration when establishing Travel Point hours of operation. Due to the nature of winter conditions, DriveTest does not offer services in this geographical region from December through to April.” Hmmm, so the Ministry itself doesn’t feel safe driving their own highways in winter?
In response to this statement I advised the Minister that Northern Ontarians are not groundhogs who hibernate. We actually come out of our boroughs and go about our lives year round, even when it snows.
As always, please feel free to contact my office about these issues, or any other provincial matters. You can reach my constituency office by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 705-461-9710 or Toll free 1-800-831-1899.
Michael Mantha MPP/député