Doug Ford targets seats in northern Ontario, long a wasteland for PC party

If Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives win the Ontario election in June, it will be in large part thanks to voters like Paul Maydo.

Ford's rally in Liberal stronghold of Thunder Bay draws 200, including lifelong Liberals

PC leader Doug Ford (centre) with the party's candidates in the two Thunder Bay ridings, Derek Parks, left, and Brandon Postuma, right. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

If Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives win the Ontario election in June, it will be in large part because of voters like Paul Maydo. 

Maydo is co-owner of a mechanical contracting firm in Thunder Bay, a city that has sent Liberals to Queen's Park for 23 years straight. 

"I've always been a Liberal, a staunch Liberal, voted for them since I was in my early 20s," Maydo said in an interview Tuesday. "But this time around I've decided to step up to the Conservative party, mainly because of Kathleen Wynne."

Maydo was one of about 200 people packed into a meeting hall Tuesday evening in Thunder Bay for a speech by PC Leader Doug Ford. It's part of Ford's first tour of northern Ontario since winning the party leadership a month ago. The aim is to capture seats in a part of the province that has long been hostile territory for his party.

Ford was barely a minute into his half-hour speech when his attacks on Wynne began.

"For 15 years we've seen the Wynne Liberals destroy this province," he said. "Kathleen Wynne has zero respect for the hard-working taxpayers."

Lifelong Liberal Paul Maydo, a Thunder Bay businessman, says he will vote Progressive Conservative in the June election. He blames Kathleen Wynne's labour policies for hurting businesses. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

Ford's message was not particularly tailored to northern Ontario. He didn't mention the Ring of Fire, the massive potential mining development many see as a big driver of northern jobs. Rather, he stuck to the broad themes he's been talking about across the province since his successful leadership bid: cutting taxes, saving money by finding budget efficiencies, and putting a big sign at the border declaring Ontario open for business. 

New in this speech from Ford was a threat to fire the CEO of privatized Hydro One, Mayo Schmidt. His salary and bonuses reached $6.2 million last year. 

"This guy has the nerve to give himself a $1.7 million raise," Ford said. "That's disgusting That is absolutely disrespecting the taxpayers. Well I can tell you folks I'm putting him on notice. He is on notice. He is gone. He is gone when we get down there." 

Ford did not explain how he would fire the CEO of a company the province does not control. The Wynne government privatized Hydro One in 2015, leaving the province as a minority shareholder.  

Ford inaccurately claimed credit for bringing Hydro One salaries into the open. "We keep hammering away at the CEO of Hydro One. And they're keeping it hush-hush," he said. "Finally, after every single day going after this guy, they were forced to publish their salaries."

However, that had nothing to do with it: the TSX requires Hydro One (and all publicly traded companies) to publish the compensation of their five top-paid executives.

About 200 people packed a meeting hall in Thunder Bay on Tuesday night to hear PC leader Doug Ford. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

Still, Ford's message resonated with much of the crowd. He drew applause for suggesting he would fire the Hydro One CEO and for his promise that anyone earning under $30,000 would pay zero income tax. 

"I think he's a wonderful person. I have a lot of trust in him and I think it's time for a change," said Jennifer Hahnle, a voter in the riding of Thunder Bay-Superior North. "I haven't ever voted PC before, but I like his platform, so I'm very impressed. I like what he stands for and I'm definitely going to vote for him."

Northern Ontario has been pretty much a wasteland for the Progressive Conservatives for the past three decades. They haven't won a single seat north of Nipissing in a general election since 1987. 

But following the Sault Ste Marie byelection win of Ross Romano last June, the PCs believe they are poised for a breakthrough in the 11 seats up for grabs in the north.

"I think we've got  good shot in probably six or seven, high end we could probably take 10," said Derek Parks, an environmental consultant on his second run as the PC candidate in Thunder Bay-Superior North. "You don't vote a new government in, you vote an old government out and I think that's where we're at right now."

Doug Ford meets some of the people who attended his speech Tuesday in Thunder Bay. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

Parks said he believes voters' dislike of Wynne outweighs voters' positive feelings toward local Liberal MPPs. He also argues that many northern voters will find Ford a natural fit.

"He understands working class northern Ontario folks," said Parks in  an interview Tuesday. "The enthusiasm Doug has brought up when he's gone to the north ... is very refreshing to see."

The PC candidates have finished third in both Thunder Bay ridings in the past four elections. 

The PCs' best hopes for winning in northwestern Ontario could be the riding of Kenora-Rainy River. The seat is currently held by the NDP's Sarah Campbell, but she is not seeking re-election. Greg Rickford, the former Conservative MP for the area, is the PC candidate.

The PCs also like the chances of their candidate Clifford Bull, chief of the Lac Seul First Nation, in the new riding of Kiiwetinoong, where two-thirds of the population is Indigenous.

The first stops on Ford's northern Ontario tour were in Kenora, Dryden and Sioux Lookout. 

About the Author

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C. Follow him on Twitter @CBCQueensPark