Thunder Bay, Ont. — The Bear Pit to close out the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association conference on Friday was rather tame until it came to discussing the motor vehicle tragedies in the region, especially on Highway 17 west of Thunder Bay to Kenora.
The Minister Forum, known as the Bear Pit for the pointed questions asked of ministers by municipal leaders, took on a solemn tone when Conmee Township Coun. Grant Arnold asked a related question to the highway carnage, relaying a story of the deaths of two contracted snowplow operators in the recent past.
“When we hear about any tragedy on the road, it’s truly saddening at the ministry, one tragedy is one too many,” said Transportation Associate Minister Stan Cho, who was one of nine ministers at the forum table. “I made a point (Thursday) to go for a ride for a couple of hours down some of the stretches onto the local highways. We had good conditions (Thursday). I can’t imagine what some of those stretches look like when there’s heavy snow.
“There is $592 million in the capital plan for 2023-24 to make sure that we are appropriately investing into the widening and enhancements of highways and bridges and ramps where necessary.
“I’m Toronto born and raised. I don’t pretend to understand the unique challenges of the North as much as I try and learn them. We’re also going to have to rely on you. . . . I follow the tragedies and the accidents on the highways up here very closely and I know (Northern Development and Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford of Kenora-Rainy River) and (Northern Development and Indigenous Affairs parliamentary assistant Kevin Holland of Thunder Bay-Atikokan) that we have conversations on this regularly.”
Cho and Rickford both pointed to the Northern Ontario Transportation Task Force that was started last year and the report that is currently in the MTO’s hands under review looking at a possibility of closing segments of highways to properly clear the snow, new technologies around how highways are plowed and co-ordination with the Ontario Provincial Police.
While the twinning of Highway 11/17 between Thunder Bay and Nipigon as well as the Manitoba/Ontario border to Kenora on Highway 17 are well underway, the same can’t be said for the Highway 17 stretch between Thunder Bay and Kenora, which concerns at least one west of Thunder Bay municipal leader.
“I want to emphasize how bad the road conditions are between the City of Thunder Bay and Kenora (to Cho),” said O’Connor Township Coun. Alex Crane. “Now they’ve done lots of work east of (Thunder Bay) and they’ve done lots of work from Kenora to the Manitoba border, but between where I am in O’Connor and (Kakabeka Falls) to Kenora, the roads are terrible. Sistonen’s Corner for example, this year there was a ton of transport accidents.
“So (Highway 17 between Thunder Bay and Kenora) needs to be twinned, it needs to be worked on, it needs to be made safe, so that’s my concern in regards to the highways.”
At the end of the minister forum, Rickford announced the province will allot $5.7 million for 179 job placement opportunities in the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund internship program.
Earlier in the day during brief speeches by political dignitaries from Northwestern Ontario, FedNor and Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu (Thunder Bay-Superior North) announced almost $3 million in funding for 14 tourism projects across the region.