Ontario finance minister visits Thunder Bay, protesters greet him

Vic Fedeli touted government initiatives he says improve life for northern Ontarians, such as reviewing infrastructure needs and exploring options for passenger rail and bus service. Protesters aired concerns about the cancellation of the Basic Income Pilot and changes to education funding among other things.

Protesters aired concerns about the cancellation of the Basic Income Pilot and changes to education funding

Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli, left, arrives at the Prince Arthur Waterfront Hotel in Thunder Bay Thursday to speak to members of the Chamber of Commerce. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli told members of the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce Thursday that the North is finally getting the respect it deserves from Queen's Park.

But protesters demonstrating outside his budget consultation at the Finlandia Club said many of his government's programs are hurting vulnerable people in the city.

Speaking at the Chamber event at the Prince Arthur Waterfront Hotel, Fedeli touted a number of government initiatives he said will improve life for people in northwestern Ontario, including pushing ahead with development in the Ring of Fire, reviewing the Far North Act - which Fedeli said has hindered investment in the north - exploring options for passenger rail and bus service in the region; developing a broadband strategy to increase access to broadband; and working to bring natural gas to more rural and northern communities.

"There will be no more one-size-fits-all Toronto-based policies that do not serve the best interests of residents in the north," Fedeli told the crowd.

He did not offer specifics on the initiatives.

Around 30 protesters braved snow and temperatures of -14 C to demonstrate against provincial government policies. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

Around 30 protesters carrying signs that read "Bring back Basic Income" and "We don't want your buck-a-beer program" gathered to greet him outside the Hoito and expressed concerns about the government's direction.  

"I'm very concerned about poverty," said protester Beth Ponka, who carried one of the basic income signs.  "In the time that I've been in my career, I've seen poverty rates get worse.  People in our community are going hungry, and children are affected." 

Correctional centre worker Marion Giesler carried a sign that said, "We need a new jail now."

"The last government at least gave us some timelines on the new jail," she said.  "This new government has not.  We need that new building as soon as possible. That jail is overcrowded."

Lakehead University Student Union representative Josh Pogue accused the government of using gimmicks like buck-a-beer to deflect attention from policies that negatively impact low-income students.

Some protesters carried signs criticizing Ontario's buck-a-beer initiative. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

"Sure you're putting money back in students' pockets by making beer cheaper and things like that, but at the same time, you're making massive cuts to education and to other services that students really rely on," he said.

Asked how he'd respond to concerns about the government's elimination of free tuition for low-income students, Fedeli, speaking to reporters after the Chamber luncheon, said those students still have access to sizeable grants through the Ontario Student Assistance Program.  

He did not comment on the timeline for a new jail, saying simply that the government is reorganizing its priorities in order to save money and that people can expect to hear more during the spring budget.  

Asked how he reconciles the numerous local protests against his government with the PC's slogan of being "for the people," Fedeli touted the government's record on job creation.  

"The best way to advance, the best way out of poverty is by having a job," he said, "and so we've been the element to help create a climate to create jobs where we've been advancing the needs of the business community so that they can create employment." 

Asked about the cancellation of the Basic Income Pilot project in Thunder Bay, Fedeli said again that the best way out of poverty is to have a job.