By Ian Ross
Restless and weary employees at Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC) continue to wait with bated breath for the final decision on the divestiture of the provincial Crown corporation, expected this spring.
“We’ve been living with this for 16 months,” says Brian Stevens, president of the Ontario Northland General Chairperson’s Association. The association is a council of seven unions representing 800 ONTC workers, whose internal solutions group submitted its business plan to the Crown corporation’s board of directors last fall.
“(The issue) wears people down,” Stevens says. “We’re not sure what the future holds, and the reaction is people’s lives have been on hold for the better part of 16 months.”
The deadline for competing private-sector bids on the money-losing corporation’s rail freight and passenger division was March 8. The bids for the telecommunications division, O.N. Telcom, closed in February.
Headquartered in North Bay, it is the city’s largest private employer, with 675 of 1,100 jobs based in the community. ONTC’s marine services division, Owen Sound Transportation Co., which operates the Manitoulin and Pelee Island ferries, will remain a Crown corporation with its own board of directors reporting directly to the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines.
It is unknown how many bids have been submitted for the rail division, but Canadian National Railway has publicly stated they are in the mix, says Stevens, while Canadian Pacific Railway has not commented.
“In the end I’m confident if the government follows their policy objectives and lives up to the evaluation objectives, our plan will win the day,” Stevens says. “I have no doubt about that.”
In a letter to ONTC employees in April, chairman Royal Poulin indicated the rail request for proposals will be evaluated according to six policy objectives, which include: protecting current employment and fostering new job growth, ensuring northerners and businesses have access to quality transportation needs, ensuring economic development opportunities are enhanced, ensuring customers receive competitive pricing, maintaining feasible levels of transportation services and receiving fair value for business opportunities made available.
“I’m just concerned the ideology of cabinet will override what’s in the best interests of northerners,” says Stevens. “(Our proposal) ought to win the day.”
In late March Stevens delivered 5,000 letters of support for the internal solutions group bid to outgoing MPP Mike Harris’s constituency office.
As to what stance premier-elect Ernie Eves will take regarding the protection of the ONTC, Stevens has not yet formulated an opinion, though the Progressive Conservative candidates vying for the nomination in the upcoming Nipissing by-election have pledged their support in taking up the group’s lobbying campaign.
KPMG and Roy Hains, an independent consultant hired by the government, are reviewing the bids for the rail division and will make a recommendation to the commission this spring. The commission board will then send its decision to the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, and the recommended proposal will be brought before cabinet.Stevens expects a final decision to be rendered sometime in mid- to late spring.