In town Wednesday for the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce's PEP Conference, Greg Rickford, minister of Energy, Mines, Northern Development and Indigenous Affairs, said he understands the importance of completing the four-laning of Highway 69 between Sudbury and Toronto.
But Rickford didn't offer any specifics about whether the Doug Ford government would commit money to the project, which still has about 75 kilometres left to complete.
“I believe one of Canada’s biggest mistakes, was not twinning this highway after World War II,” Rickford said, in response to a question from chamber CEO Debbi Nicholson. “I live in Kenora. Ten years ago, Prime Minister (Steven) Harper, myself, and Premier (Dalton) McGuinty – as he was then – came to Kenora and announced $100 million for that segment of highway from the Manitoba border to the City of Kenora. (We're) still waiting — $100 million and it’s nowhere to be found on the books. We know that it’s moved out to another project somewhere else.
“I see the opportunity and we understand the potential, and the safety and the good economic sense that twinning makes, and we will be strategically committed to continuing with those projects. But we’re also going to be announcing some twinning of the highway out in my neck of the woods pretty soon, too.”
While that last comment seems to imply that money for four-laning is headed northwest, Nicholson said she didn't think Rickford was making a definitive statement on the province's plans.
“I don't think there was a ringing endorsement by any means, but there certainly wasn't a public rejection of it either,” she said. “I think he sort of intimated that, certainly, his area has has been neglected over the last number of years and likely there will be an announcement there ... So I don't think, you know, he was by any means announcing the funding for four-laning, but I don't think it's off the table either.
“I think probably what they're looking for is a good reason for them to invest in the four-laning of Hwy. 69. So we would need to demonstrate how completing it would make Sudbury and Northeastern Ontario open for business.”
Mayor Brian Bigger, who was also at the PEP event, said the impression he got from Rickford was that he understands how important highways are for people in Northern Ontario.
“My take away from it is that there are a number of projects that they're considering and he did mention one in Northwestern Ontario, but I but I think he came back a number of times talking about the importance of four-laning and that he clearly understands its impact,” Bigger said.
“He clearly told us he knows there's a need for Hwy. 69 being completed, and I think we've got a fairly good relationship with the the minister and I'm sure he's on it. Hwy. 69 is clearly on the list and we'll just keep advocating for that.”
The province is still working on its spending priorities, Bigger said, and he'll keep fighting for the project as the government's plans become clearer.
“But at this point in time, I think the only thing (Rickford) could probably say … is that he absolutely understands the importance of Hwy. 69. He made a connection to being open for business and that leaves the door open for us to continue to have those conversations.”
Sydney Stonier, Rickford's communications director, said Wednesday she wanted to make it clear his comments in Sudbury were not an indication of whether the project would be completed. Rickford was talking about the shared frustration he has with Sudbury, since people in his riding have also been waiting a long time for highway improvements.
“I think that was just more of an anecdote to give the context of where we are,” Stonier said. “He has no information right now to say what the next highway twinning project is. I think he was just trying to state that, don't forget there's lots of highways in the North, but that does not mean that Sudbury is not a priority.
“It's a mutual frustration across Northern Ontario that this money was committed and it's not there.”
-- With files from Ian Ross