Coun. Steve Butland told SaultOnline that the long-awaited meeting between Huron Central Railway supporters and the province’s Minister of Energy, Mines, Northern Development and Indigenous Affairs didn’t go as planned during last week’s Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference in Ottawa.
Butland, part of the two-man task force that went to this meeting, said that although they went with the intention to speak to the minister, they were advised by local MPP Ross Romano that the minister had over 70 meeting requests, and they would only get 15 minutes to present their case.
“Discretion was a better part of valour. (Romano) said that the time frame would be 15 minutes, so we decided maybe it’s best to back out of that and say ‘we’ll meet with the minster outside of the AMO conference at his choice of location, time, and date, as long as it’s sooner than later, and hopefully we can have 45 minutes or so to present our case.'”
Instead, they did have a meeting with the officials from the ministry of transport federally, as well as a policy advisor for the minister. Butland said the advisor “wasn’t optimistic, but he was also somewhat positive, saying the reason that Huron Central had been turned out previously, perhaps they were in the wrong program.”
“So he suggested this program, this program, this program, we said ‘can you help us get through this?’ And indicated a positive response. I suggested we give him a call in a week or so and see if there’s any success. Both parties agreed that probably the provincial government should be the first one at the table, and the federal government will come to the table. We believe that.”
Butland said the ace in the hole for the Sault is Doug Ford and his campaign promise to commit to ensuring this railroad survives.
“We have to get him to uphold that campaign promise to the people that are impacted between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, Espanola, Nairn Centre, Echo Bay, Thessalon, etc, etc. And a whole lot of Indigenous people in the communities along the track.”
The closure of the HCR won’t only affect the businesses located in these locations, but will have an indirect impact on Algoma Steel as well, as they’re one of the clients that puts freight onto the cars. Along with the 40 people in the Sault who work for Huron Central, the total number of jobs lost across the board will be around 1,000, says Butland.
Where does HCR stand now?
Butland said at the moment, they’re at a standstill until they can set up a meeting with the minister. He said that’s the next step in this time-sensitve process.
“We’ve asked MPP Romano to please set this up as soon as possible with the minister, and name his location, time and date, we’ll be there. And it was just myself and somebody from EACOM who’s out of Nairn Centre who employ about 100 people, but we have somebody from Espanola, Domtar that employs I think upwards of 500 people. So it has tremendous impacts. I think we can bring more players to the table, as well as the president of Huron Central, and let’s have an appropriate type of meeting. Not a rush job.”
If the HCR doesn’t receive funding by the end of December, that will be the end of the line unless the governments come to the table, Butland explained. They also indicated if there is nothing forthcoming in the short-term, they have to notify their employees, up to six weeks or so in advance, that they may be laid off.
“So the time frame is even less, or shorter than we anticipated,” he explained.
Butland acknowledged the push back the HCR is receiving in regards to their plea for funding, saying he agrees that big corporations shouldn’t have to come to the province every five years or so asking for subsidies.
“That’s a legitimate complaint, but they are coming to the table and if they decide ‘no, we’re not going to’ then thousands jobs are gone. So yes they should come to the table and if they don’t, we’re at risk. They are bringing monies to the table in a partnership, and they’re also committed to erecting a maintenance structure in Sault Ste. Marie to do some maintenance locally. Which is an additional benefit. Also, the push back as well is ‘they’re going to come every five years for subsidies, that’s not acceptable.’ I wholeheartedly agree with that. So I think we have a commitment now that this funding will be good for 10 years and hopefully that makes them sustainable so they don’t have to come back at all for money.”