January 9, 2013

The push for a new Northern Ontario deal grows

An initiative to revitalize the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC) and build a rail link to the Ring of Fire in Northern Ontario is gaining support among key stakeholders.

“It’s a win proposition for everybody. Not only in Northern Ontario, throughout the country,” said Brian Stevens, spokesperson for General Chairperson’s Association, which represents unionized employees at ONTC.

“Here’s an opportunity for both the provincial and federal governments to meet their policy objectives on a number of fronts.”

According to the provincial government, the Ring of Fire area offers “multi-generational potential of chromite production.” More than 20 companies hold claims in the area and have spent almost $300 million to date on exploration.

The New Deal for Northern Ontario, which recently launched a website by the same name, seeks to revitalize the ONTC by persevering transportation services, provide access to the Ring of Fire mineral deposits and preserve and create jobs.

The New Deal would transfer ownership of the provincially-held ONTC railroad and other assets to a new ports authority to be operated under the Canada Marine Act.

On March 23, 2012 the Ontario government announced its decision to divest the ONTC by tendering all assets of the corporation for sale to the private sector.

ONTC operated the Northlander passenger rail service between Toronto and Cochrane, which the government shut down on Sept. 28, 2012 due to increased costs to the government and stagnant ridership.

A growing number of Northern Ontario municipalities are directly in support of the New Deal or for a pause in the sell-off.

Some provincial Liberal leadership candidates have expressed similar support for action.

Candidate Harinder Takhar issued a policy statement calling for “divestiture of the ONTC to an independent, self-sustaining organization, and the development of a new rail line for the ‘Ring of Fire’ operations.”

Glen Murray has called on the government to pause its plan to divest the ONTC, while Gerard Kennedy is seeking a review of the sell-off decision and further examination of ONTC’s potential role in developing the Ring of Fire mineral deposits.

Charles Sousa supports “a sustainable, reliable ONTC that connects the North and supports jobs.”

The Liberal leadership convention will begin on Jan. 25.

“This is an opportunity for us to explain to them [candidates] and for the most part, we’ve been very encouraged,” said Stevens, adding that Kathleen Wynne and Sandra Pupatello are the only candidates who have not really reached out to them.

Previously, the New Deal has received the unanimous endorsement of unionized ONTC employees and retirees, and support from First Nations communities, Nipissing-Timiskaming MP Jay Aspin, and mining and other business interests.

From an environmental assessment to the building of the railway, Stevens said the project would take about four years, if it were to begin today.

Some consultations have occurred, though they are not part of the official environmental assessment yet.

There has been a lot of work being done around the preparation of the railway itself, said Stevens. About $15 million has been spent on engineering, such as citing locations for gravel and doing some engineering work on bridges.

“The group that we’re working with is very serious about this project,” said Stevens.

“We want to be ready to move on it, once we get the ports authority and begin moving on that front.”

Stevens believes that having a rail system versus a road is more cost-effective, safer, more environmentally friendly and will assist nearby First Nation communities.

“The nice thing about rail over road is you only have to haul once, in a sense, because one train a day could haul as much tonnage as 150 trucks,” he explained, adding that passenger rail service would help the region.

“You’d have to run a couple of thousand miners up there on a weekly basis. You’d have all those northern communities that would like to be able to reach out to the rest of the world and connect.”

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