This past week saw the interim president of the ONTC, Corina Moore, spoke at the FONOM meeting in Sudbury. Unfortunately, her comments were not helpful and have alienated workers at the 113-year-old transportation commission.
As reported by CBC, Moore explained that the Commission was in a "crisis situation". I couldn't agree more. As my research into the ONTC showed, it has been losing money for the past few decades as inadequate subsidies and the precarious economic and demographic situation in the north made for a difficult market to operate in.
However, Moore went a step further, saying that the ONTC needed a "culture shift" away from "entitlement" and towards a more competitive framework. This reflects previous statements she made regarding the need for a more competitive organization, but also suggests that the ONTC has been some sort of spoilt child. I disagree, my experience with the ONTC showed hard-working people who provided essential services connecting, not only northeastern Ontario, but also the north to the south.
My real issue, however, is a comment that the CBC reports Moore made to the effect that "the future will be challenging because the company hasn't seen much change in 113 years." As Call of the Northland argues, the past 113 years have seen enormous changes at the ONTC. As trucks became a threat to the railway's business, the ONR spent $600,000 to purchase local trucking firm Star Transfer, allowing for the integration of road and rail freight. Seeing the potential of tourism, the T&NO (the predecessor to the ONTC) took over boat excursions on Lake Temagami (in 1943) and Lake Nipissing (in 1945). Even more crucial was the introduction of the Polar Bear Express as a tourist trip in 1964. More recently, the ONTC ran its own airline from 1971 until the mid-1990s. This provided timely connections between communities. The 1977 introduction of the Northlander was a huge success. Even more recently, the ONTC's refurbishment division's work has been lauded as some of the highest-quality in North America. The company hasn't seen much change? Really?
Unsurprisingly, Unifor (which represents almost half of the ONTC's workers) was quick to criticize the statement. The president of Local 103, Andy Mitchell, was right when he said that "To publicly state that Ontario Northland has not changed in 113 years
demonstrates either a lack of familiarization with ONTC or a deliberate
scheme to undermine its value and purpose, with the ultimate intent to
rebrand the sell-off of the ONTC as transformational".
A disturbing part of the ONTC divestment and transformation process has been deliberate misinformation. The Ontario government's claims about declining Northlander ridership were simply wrong. To say that the ONTC has not changed is simply to ignore history. The past few decades have indeed been very difficult for the ONR, the government has (until recently) cut back subsidies, industries have closed and the improvements to Highway 11 have made driving a slightly less onerous prospect. But, for Corina Moore to confuse the recent history of the ONTC with the agency's entire legacy is both inaccurate and a disservice to all of the people who developed winning strategies to keep the ONTC relevant to the north.
I would be remiss not to mention Metrolinx, the current darling of the government. The Toronto area is growing at an astounding pace and it desperately needs public transportation. I am happy to report that it has never been easier to get around the region without a car, but the development comes at a cost. Looking down from the north, how could northern Ontario not feel left out? As Toronto-area commuters are treated to improved train service, double-decker buses, new light rail lines and even an express train to Pearson Airport. Northern Ontario lost the Northlander three years ago and is losing bus stations as we speak. As Ontario Northland is told to become more competitive and efficient, Metrolinx seems to have an unlimited budget.
The ONTC needs to change - everyone agrees with that. However, what we need is constructive, accurate, dialogue. Recognize that the ONTC has changed before and that is can change again. I do think that there has been complacency recently, but that does not reflect the full story.
The transformation of the ONTC presents an exciting opportunity for positive change. A fair ammount of trust has been lost between the government, the ONTC and northern residents. Now is the chance for all sides to come together and heal the rifts which several years of bad decisions have caused.