A couch reserved for Premier Dalton McGuinty and Minister of Northern Development and Mines Rick Bartolucci was set up at a June 23 rally in Sudbury protesting the sale of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC).
Despite the fact that the protest took place in a Laurentian University parking lot, close to where the politicians were attending the Ontario Liberal Party's quarterly provincial council meeting, the seats remained vacant.
The protest, attended by about 200 people, was organized by the Ontario Northland General Chairpersons Association, which represents all unionized employees at the Crown transportation and communications agency.
Brian Kelly, a union spokesperson, said he didn't really expect to see McGuinty or Bartolucci at the rally as they haven't agreed to meet with the unions so far.
“We thought if the premier won't come to the North, the North will come to the premier.”
McGuinty said didn't meet with the union, but did say during a speech that the province can no longer afford to provide certain services, including the ONTC.
“When it comes to Ontario Northland, under the current arrangement, we're just not getting value for money,” McGuinty said.
The premier did promise communities who rely on the motor coach services, currently provided by the ONTC, that they'll still have service — albeit from another provider.
When later asked by reporters how he'll be able to require a private company to continue these bus routes, McGuinty said only, “that's our commitment.”
“If we have a bus service delivered right now by ONTC, we will make sure that bus service continues to run,” he said.
Nickel Belt MPP France Gélinas attended the rally and later listened in on McGuinty's remarks.
“It's the first time I've heard him say clearly that every bus route will be maintained,” Gélinas said.
“It's a tiny, weeny little step. I'll celebrate the small victories, I guess. The rest of it is a huge battle.”
She said it will be tough for the premier to keep this promise given that the bus service will be sold to a private company.
But Gélinas was not impressed McGuinty didn't make the time to meet with the union leaders.
Kelly said if he'd had a chance to meet with McGuinty and Bartolucci, he'd have made a case for making the ONTC a stand-alone government agency, much like Ontario Hydro.
Currently, the ONTC runs under the portfolio of the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. “It's a bureaucratic mess,” Kelly said, who added the ONTC provides an “essential service” in the North as the only bus and rail service to some areas.
In terms of the service's cost, he points out that transportation services in the Greater Toronto Area receive billions in funding.
Kelly envisions a similar scenario to the BC Rail privatization where half the workforce was laid off and much of the agency's infrastructure was mothballed.
Phil Clement, an ONTC locomotive engineer for 27 years, said his future is uncertain right now since there is no guarantee a private employer would hire ONTC workers and won't be able to provide the current level of service.
“The people of the North are getting a disservice by the government,” Clement said. “They will not improve services to the people of the North. They'll be taking it away. I hope they realize that.”