Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath came out swinging at Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne during Monday's election debate in Thunder Bay — calling the Liberal government corrupt — before the pair addressed the economic needs of northern communities.

Horwath's sharp tone came in her opening statement of the debate on northern issues, a one-on-one with Wynne in the absence of Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, who said a scheduling conflict kept him from taking part.

Wynne stayed focus on questions about northern communities, asked by local mayors, on what can be done about high energy costs, how to provide skilled workers for the mining sector, how First Nations can reap economic benefits from mining, and how long will it take to have infrastructure in place to mine the massive Ring of Fire region.

Both Horwath and Wynne promised to spend $1 billion on an all-season transportation corridor to the Ring of Fire.

"It's a national project at least as important as the oilsands in Alberta," Wynne said during the event in a Thunder Bay hotel ballroom.

Wynne has been promising to spend the money over 10 years to help build the much-needed transportation route to the remote area — roughly 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay — even if the federal Conservatives don't help out.

Horwath on Monday said an NDP government would spend at least the same amount. She said northern voters have "no confidence in the Liberals on development, because 5,500 jobs have been left on the table year after year."

"If it takes more than $1 billion, we are committed to that," Horwath added.

'It's a national project at least as important as the oilsands in Alberta'- Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne

The Liberal Party of Ontario issued a news release during the debate, scoffing at Horwath's $1-billion pledge, saying the NDP campaign platform "specifically allocated zero dollars for the Ring of Fire."

The New Democrats said the commitment was confirmed during a technical briefing on the party's platform last Thursday.

Horwath promised "widespread discussion and consultations with First Nations communities" on helping them secure jobs and other economic benefits from the Ring of Fire.

Wynne, too, said several First Nations communities will be part of the discussion, "project by project."

"It's a $60-billion opportunity ... and there are going to be a lot of spinoffs from the Ring of Fire," she said.

All three major parties vying to form the next government in the June 12 election have made different promises to woo northern voters, including developing the massive chromite deposit.

Hudak has proposed bringing the federal government to the table along with private companies for the development.

The Liberals have said they will make decisions on the project through a development corporation that they will create within 60 days of taking office and will include both levels of government, First Nations and private companies.

Ontario election northern leaders debate

Some demonstrators in Thunder Bay were pointing to Tory Leader Tim Hudak's absence at the northern leaders debate. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Wynne said the Liberals would also expand major highways to four lanes, including Highway 69 between Parry Sound and Sudbury, the Trans-Canada Highway and Highway 11/17 between Thunder Bay and Nipigon.

The New Democrats have promised in their platform to spend $250 million to widen 60 kilometres of highways across Ontario each year, at least half of which will be in the north.

They say they'll spend another $20 million a year to restore passenger service on Ontario Northland Rail and $40 million on 200 more snowplows and trucks to improve winter road safety.

Horwath slams 'corrupt' Liberals

Wynne used her opening statement Monday to talk about her efforts to get to know the needs of northern Ontario, saying other provincial governments "didn't get the northern perspective."

Horwath used her statement mostly to launch a strong attack on the Liberals.

"This government has shown they are corrupt and they don't deserve your vote," she said. 

Horwath accused Wynne of endorsing the costly decision to cancel two gas plants in southern Ontario and said people "people have had enough of Liberal betrayal and lies."

Horwath was stung over the weekend by the leak of a letter signed by 34 prominent NDP supporters questioning her leadership and, in their view, her party's shift to the right in this campaign. In response, Horwath said progressives should be concerned about putting an end to corruption.

She continued that line of attack on Monday, saying Wynne can't blame the decision to cancel gas plants and the attempted cover up on the previous Dalton McGuinty administration.

"Ms. Wynne was at the centre of it," said Horwath. "She was a senior cabinet minister. She was a campaign co-chair. She endorsed it all."

After the debate, Wynne told reporters that Horwath knows the allegations against her are "just not true," but makes them
anyway.

"It's quite a statement, and it's a bit sad that the NDP leader falls back on that when we were here to listen to questions from northern leaders," said Wynne. "Andrea Horwath knows that those allegations are not true."

Hudak takes heat for skipping debate

Wynne took aim at the PC leader over the weekend, saying she found it "inexplicable" that he wouldn't attend the northern leaders debate and that it would never have occurred to her to miss it.

Her predecessor Dalton McGuinty was absent during the 2011 election, but Wynne said she wasn't the premier then.

Hudak pointed out that neither of the two other party leaders have spent more time travelling northern Ontario than he has.

The Liberals issued a news release Sunday night with a list of flights to Thunder Bay with available seats that Hudak could use to still get to Monday's debate. The Tory leader instead scheduled tours of Peterborough and the Greater Toronto Area.

All major leaders will be attending the leaders' debate in Toronto on June 3.

ONTARIO RING OF FIRE

with files from The Canadian Press