SUDBURY—The NDP would add 300 doctors — 100 of them specialists — in northern Ontario, boost grants for anyone needing to travel outside the region for health care and open more detox and rehab beds to combat the opioid crisis.
It would also reinstate the in-demand bilingual midwifery program — which was the only one in the country — that was axed by Laurentian University after it turned to the courts for creditor protection because of its grim financial state.
Leader Andrea Horwath announced her party’s northern platform Monday morning at Bell Park, on the shores of Ramsey Lake, alongside incumbent New Democrat MPPs France Gelinas, Jamie West and Michael Mantha.
“The fact of the matter is the north has been ignored for far too long,” Horwath said. “We need to step up and fix the things that matter most to you.”
Like the PCs and Liberals, the NDP would also restore the Northlander rail service and connect it with the Polar Bear Express in Cochrane.
Horwath also said an NDP government would expand training in the trades, mining, and television and film.
The New Democrats have yet to cost much of their election platform, but Horwath said full financial details will be provided “very shortly.”
All four party leaders will be in North Bay on Tuesday for their first debate, and health care is expected to be a leading issue.
Dax D’Orazio, a post-doctoral fellow in political science at Queen’s University who hails from Sault Ste. Marie, told the Star “it’s impossible to live in northern Ontario and have something positive to say about the health-care system.”
Horwath said people in Thunder Bay can wait 19 hours to get emergency care, and travel hours to get the specialist care they need.
It can take months for northerners to be reimbursed for their out-of-region travel costs — including mileage and hotel stays — so the New Democrats would guarantee a 14-day turnaround.
To ease shortages, the NDP would hire hundreds of doctors and mental health professionals, speed up the accreditation process for internationally trained physicians, expand available spots at the newly independent Northern Ontario School of Medicine, and open community health centres in the Kenora, Cochrane and Algoma districts.
France Gelinas, the veteran New Democrat MPP who won the Nickel Belt riding in a landslide in 2018 — who is also her party’s health critic — said “not a week goes by that I don’t have somebody in my office with horrible, horrible stories” of the northern travel grant.
“Some people have to go back to Toronto every two weeks, and it takes six months to get paid,” she said, adding it’s been more than a decade since rates were adjusted. “They haven’t got enough money to pay for a hotel anymore — you only get $100 back and they pay $400 to sleep in a hotel in Toronto.”
She said the north is in dire need of family physicians, and mental health professionals like psychiatrists or psychologists. The hospital in Timmins needs cardiologists, and Sault Ste. Marie needs more orthopedic surgeons, she added.
“It varies by area, but they all have needs,” she said.
Over the weekend, Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford was in the Sault, Thunder Bay and Timmins, and is expected to spend a lot of time in the north during the campaign. He announced $74 million in highway improvements and $75 million to restore the Northlander rail service.
The NDP says it would also regulate gas prices to help give relief at the pumps, and ensure major northern highways are cleared of snow within eight hours, and widen Highway 69, Highway 11/17 and the Thunder Bay Expressway.
Asked if she was worried about the PCs targeting northern seats held by the NDP — the Tories have high hopes for their candidate in Timmins, Mayor George Pirie — she said “not at all.”
“I think Doug Ford is trying to discover the north for the first time,” she said, adding that a PC or Liberal government would “make promises and walk away from those promises once they’re elected.”
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy