Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives are promising improvements to road and rail transportation in northern Ontario, including a $75 million campaign pledge to restore the Northlander passenger rail service between Toronto and Timmins, Ont.

“This vital transportation link will help rebuild northern Ontario’s economy. It will connect industries and workers in the north with the rest of the province,” Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford said on Sunday during a campaign stop in Timmins.

Ford said the formerly shuttered rail service would bring economic and personal benefits to the region’s residents. 

He also promised to extend the Northlander to Cochrane, Ont., and add a connection point to Polar Bear Express service to Moosonee, Ont., if the Tories are re-elected on June 2.

“I’ve heard countless stories of people not being able to access life-saving treatments, not being able to see the specialists they need because their communities are cut off from the rest of the province,” he said. “Well, that’s all changing.”

The Northlander rail service was cancelled in 2012 by the then-Liberal government, who said it was too costly to subsidize. Opposition parties at the time pointed out that Toronto-area transit systems also rely on government subsidies, arguing that critical northern transportation shouldn’t be any different.

The Tories announced a few weeks ago that $75 million had been earmarked for the restoration of the Northlander, targeting the middle of this decade for service to restart.

Ontario’s New Democrats also promised to bring back the Northlander if elected to form government.

After hosting a Mother’s Day event with candidates in Waterloo Region on Sunday, NDP leader Andrea Horwath noted her party was against shutting down the rail service and pointed out that Ford didn’t deliver on his 2018 campaign pledge to restore it. 

“It’s not back. It was a broken promise,” Horwath said.

She said northern Ontarians have been waiting a long time for infrastructure upgrades that haven’t been delivered by previous governments.

The provincial Liberals also criticized Ford for not fulfilling his past promise about the Northlander, saying in an emailed statement that the Tory leader shouldn’t be “patting himself on the back for repeating old commitments that weren’t delivered.”

The party said it planned to unveil more details on their strategy for northern Ontario on Tuesday, including a rebuild of Highway 101 in Timmins and a widening of Highway 17 from Kenora to the Manitoba border.

The Liberals also said they would restore service on the Northlander from Toronto to North Bay within two years and plan for passenger rail further north, including extending the Polar Bear Express southward to Timmins.

The Ontario Green Party has also made a funding commitment to restore and improve the Northlander.

Highway 101 also figured in Ford’s announcement on Sunday. He pledged to invest $74 million to rebuild the highway through the city, describing it as a key traffic artery for the region’s mining and forestry sectors.

Ford was asked if that highway investment promise would stick if he is re-elected as premier of Ontario but the local Tory candidate does not win in Timmins. Ford didn’t directly answer the question but emphasized his party’s commitment to getting candidate George Pirie, the current mayor of Timmins, elected.

Ford was the first party leader to head north after the campaign kicked off this month, but all major party leaders are expected to visit the region this week for a debate on northern issues.

Horwath departed on Sunday for a northern campaign swing, with stops scheduled in Sudbury and North Bay. She said community access to health-care services would feature prominently in the NDP’s platform priorities for the region. 

Ford was the only major party leader with a formal campaign stop scheduled on Sunday

Horwath offered no new platform commitments during her stop in the Cambridge riding, which is one of several in which the NDP came within striking distance in the 2018 election and hope to win this time.

Belinda Karahalios won the riding of Cambridge in the last election for the Progressive Conservatives but was kicked out of the caucus after voting against COVID-19 public health measures.

Outreach worker Marjorie Knight is taking a second run at the seat for the NDP after first campaigning in 2018. She was one of the party’s five candidates for Waterloo Region at the Sunday event — all of them mothers, Horwath pointed out. 

Knight said she’s seen low-income families struggle during the pandemic and she hopes to apply lessons learned from her last campaign to bring their concerns to the legislature.

“All the reasons why I ran in 2018 are still here,” she said. 

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca was scheduled to take a personal day on Sunday, but the party published another digital video intended to introduce voters to Del Duca and his family life.

The final video in the series featured the Liberal leader and his wife Utilia Amaral talking about their relationship and Amaral’s battle with cancer years ago.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2022.

Adena Ali and Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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