THUNDER BAY – The provincial finance minister did not receive a warm welcome during a snowy visit to the city.
Making a Thursday afternoon stop in Thunder Bay for a public budget consultation session, Vic Fedeli was met by a crowd of protestors rallying against a number of decisions made by the Ford provincial government in its first few months in office.
“Conservatives are no friends of Thunder Bay,” demonstrators shouted while Fedeli walked into the building.
Since winning last June’s provincial election, the Progressive Conservative government announced their intention to wind down the basic income pilot project well short of its expected end date, freeze minimum wage at $14 an hour and eliminate the free tuition model introduced by the previous Liberal government to make postsecondary education more accessible.
Trevor Anderson, a basic income recipient, said he was told the transition to the Ontario Disability Support Program would be a smooth one, though it hasn’t seemed like it thus far.
“When I was on disability I remember starving and being on the pilot project, I was able to get a safe place in town to rent,” Anderson said, adding that his monthly rent cost is $900 but he would now only receive $575 for rent. “There is no such thing as $575 for rent in this town for a one-bedroom apartment. Until the government decides to bring the rent down for us, it’s going to be really tough for us.”
“Until we get some more money for rent, I could be homeless. It’s coming very close.”
Fedeli, essentially echoing Premier Doug Ford’s comments in Thunder Bay last fall that the best way out of poverty “is something called a job,” pointed to the government’s commitment to having Ontario open for business as a form of social assistance.
“The best way to advance, the best way out of poverty, is by having a job,” Fedeli said earlier in the day in response to a question from local reporters following a lunch-hour speech at a Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce event.
“We’ve been the element to help create jobs. We’ve been advancing the needs of the business community so they can create employment and they have been. They’ve answered the call, they’ve been creating tens of thousands of job. I would say we’re proud of the record of job creation in the province of Ontario.”
Last month the province confirmed it would be overhauling the Ontario Student Assistance Program. Under former premier Kathleen Wynne’s plan, low-income students had been receiving non-repayable grants that covered their tuition. The announced changes, which include a 10 per cent cut to tuition costs, would limit the eligibility of funding and combine grants with loans.
Brooklyn Wilson, a Lakehead University student representing the school’s student union, called those changes reckless.
“There’s a sense of anxiety. I’ve heard friends of mine say they’re not sure how they’re going to afford rent, how they’re going to stay in the city of Thunder Bay,” Wilson said.
“They may have to go back home to southern Ontario because they simply can’t afford education without the free tuition. Their education is in jeopardy and we don’t think that this is just or right. We believe everyone should be able to pursue an education regardless of their income status.”
Fedeli suggested the tuition reform balanced the students’ concerns with fiscal responsibility.
“The students for six years were in my office while I was in Opposition asking for their tuition to be lowered,” Fedeli said. “We know that the top tier earners – the families making more than $175,000 or more – were given grants. The auditor general told us that’s not sustainable so we’ve said what both groups asked us to do.”
“The lower income (students) still have tremendous OSAP grants. I would urge them to go on the OSAP calculator and learn exactly what their grants and loans will be because they are still exceptionally accessible here in Ontario.”
Michael Lundy, a correctional officer at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre, said Fedeli toured the Thunder Bay District Jail in the weeks following the 2015 riot that led to an officer being taken hostage for several hours.
While Fedeli called the conditions “deplorable” at the time, Lundy said the government has shown no movement on the replacement facility promised by the former regime.
“I’m always concerned when it comes to a Conservative government, going back on their words, changing how things look,” Lundy said. “I have to say I’m very concerned. At this point I have no reason to believe anything they’ve said so far.”
Fedeli said the provincial budget, which will be released in the spring, will provide details on infrastructure priorities.