The long-delayed Ring of Fire and proposed changes to Ontario's labour rules were top of mind Tuesday in Sudbury as Premier Kathleen Wynne held a Q&A with chamber of commerce members.
Joined onstage by Energy Minister – and Sudbury MPP – Glenn Thibeault, Wynne fielded questions from business owners concerned about the implications of the Changing Workplaces Review Final Report.
The report has 173 recommendations, although the premier said Tuesday not all will be implemented as part of reformed labour laws in the province. Proposals include increasing the minimum number of sick days workers receive; giving workers three weeks of vacation after five year of work, boosting the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and enhancing protections for workers in the most low-paid and vulnerable jobs.
Extra vacation, sick time and a higher minimum wage will drive up their costs significantly without adding to their revenue, some business owners told Wynne.
Added to high hydro rates and it becomes a matter of survival, they said.
In response, the premier said her government is determined to find ways to help workers in the most vulnerable spots in the labour force. While the minimum wage is tied to inflation, Wynne said those workers never received a bump up to a living wage.
“We need to find a way to help people catch up,” she said.
However, she said she expects a “robust conversation” in government about how to help workers and not hurt business. There will be small business supports in place to cushion the blow, she said, adding that details will be announced soon.
“We need to also make sure changes are put in place to offset some of those costs,” Wynne said. “We're looking to strike a balance…There are a lot of recommendations on the report and we will not be following up on all of them.”
She also responded to questions about the lack of progress on the Ring of Fire. As she said previously, getting all First Nations to agree to the route for the road into the massive chromite deposit has proved difficult.
“If we can't get consensus, we need to start working with communities that want to work with us,” Wynne said. “In weeks, not months. No one in the province wants a shovel in the ground more than we do.”
“Within the next year, that's certainly our objective,” she said, on when work will begin.
Ward 4 Coun. Evelyn Dutrisac asked about the province's support for turning former schools into community hubs. In particular, groups often lack money for physical changes to the buildings.
“It's often that lack of capital funding that we do not have,” Dutrisac said.
Wynne said there is funding, but the key is getting buy in from key groups to make it happen.
“It means school boards have to work together, municipalities have to work together,” she said. “That's often where the hub ends. (So) it's not just about keeping schools open, it's about creating the best services.”
The chamber's Debbi Nicholson asked about what the province can do to help Greater Sudbury attract more immigrants.
Wynne said one of the challenges is attracting skilled labour into Ontario outside the GTA. That's often because Toronto has established minority communities that make life much easier for new arrivals.
“So it's not just about getting them to come here, it's about getting them to stay,” she said.
Thibeault said getting an immigration office back in Sudbury would make the process easier, since immigrants wouldn't have to deal with papers headed to Toronto.
He's working with federal government to bring one back to Sudbury, he said.
“That would open the federal doors.”