The Current

Rural and northern Ontario voters sound off before critical election

Issues like the price of electricity, school closures and dwindling populations are becoming life-or-death issues for communities far away from Queen's Park.

Soaring electricity rates, school closures and dwindling populations among top issues outside the GTA

Tim Priddle, President of The WoodSource stands in front of the lumber from a dismantled barn from Shelburne, Ontario. He ships product across North America but says crippling electricity prices are preventing any expansion to his mill. (Laurie Fagan CBC)

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By the end of the week, Ontario will have a new premier.

Whether it's the NDP's Andrea Horwath or the Progressive Conservatives' Doug Ford, you can be certain a lot of attention will be paid to the Greater Toronto Area — where half of all Ontarians live — and the province's other big cities.

But for the dramatic twists and turns citizens have seen on the campaign trail, this is an especially important election for the rural, remote and northern pockets of Ontario.

Issues like the price of electricity, school closures and dwindling populations are becoming life-or-death issues for communities far away from Queen's Park.

Squeezed by soaring hydro costs

Tim Priddle, co-owner of his family-owned business The WoodSource, says he's seen "an exodus" of people leaving rural Ontario and the manufacturing sector because of soaring costs.

His hydro bill has increased from $4,000 to $8,500 in the last seven years, paid to Hydro One. He'd pay tens of thousands of dollars less if his property was across the road, where Ottawa Hydro's lower rates are applied..

"I think if you were talking to people doing a business study of manufacturing in Ontario, they'd say we're at least at risk, if not endangered, partly because of extremely high hydro rates," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Priddle said that so far, only Progressive Conservative candidate Jeremy Roberts has given him the impression he understands the frustration of small business owners like him.

Because of that, Roberts will get his vote — but he doesn't want to make it sound like he's giving the party carte blanche.

We have a thriving little town and when the school goes, people will leave and our town will die.- Dr. Lori Forester

"I would say that I haven't been totally pleased with the leadership of the [Progressive] Conservative Party," he said. "I'm hoping that there are some young, bright minds that will help clean that up."

The PCs' previous leader Patrick Brown stepped down abruptly after allegations of sexual harassment were laid against him. Current leader Doug Ford is facing a lawsuit from his late brother Rob Ford's wife, Renata, who is alleging millions of dollars have been withheld from her and her two children. 

Liberal Bob Chiarelli currently serves as Priddle's MPP in the riding of Ottawa West-Nepean.

"I have looked at the Liberal Party; I've seen the decimation they've caused to our energy system. They seem to have no interest at all in small manufacturers," he said.

Schools threatened with closure

Over in Stone Mills Township, a community of just under 8,000 people near Kingston, Ont., people are fighting to keep open a school that is at risk of closure because of low enrolment.

Dr. Lori Forester said a school's closure can "completely destroy" the community around it.

"The schools are the heart and soul of the town," she said. "We have a thriving little town and when the school goes, people will leave and our town will die."

Priddle says electricity costs have more than doubled since 2010, despite installing high-efficiency motors and LED lighting in its mill and store. (Laurei Fagan CBC)

Forester has little faith in the Liberals right now. She feels that rural communities are being ignored by the Ministry of Education in favour of the more densely populated urban areas.

"There is a feeling, certainly among anybody that has fought to save the school, that they don't care — that they're very single minded," she said. "They just want to close these little schools and build mega-schools, and put the mega-schools near cities so that they don't have to deal with these issues in rural Ontario."

Encourage immigration to rural Ontario, says policy expert

Charles Cirtwell, president of the Northern Policy Institute, said Priddle and Forester's thoughts on who they want to vote for are simple: the candidates who demonstrate they care about rural concerns will have the advantage in the polls.

That personal connection often matters more than party allegiances on election night — but it can hit serious roadblocks down the line.

"When they get to Queen's Park and they start trying to talk to either their colleagues in caucus, or the leaders in the public service, many of those folks haven't left Toronto in 15, 20 years — or at least that's the impressions we get," he said.

"As a result you end up with policies that are built and designed for the Greater Toronto Area, and have very serious negative repercussions for the rest of us."

Lori Forester and her son Calum MacLaughlin in front of Tamworth Elementary School. She says rural schools are 'the heart and soul of the town.' (Susan Burgess/CBC)

Cirtwell argues that whichever party forms the new government, they could tweak immigration policies to convince new Canadians to settle in non-urban centres that are desperate for skilled workers and long-term residents.

"The province could easily allocate half, a third, or all of that growth to rural and northern communities without impacting the inflow into Toronto at all," he said.

"That's simply a change in policy. It doesn't require any other rules or any other expenditure."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

With files from CBC News. This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino, Kristian Jebsen and Willow Smith.