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Ontario Liberals promise $1-billion for Ring of Fire

Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne unveils her party's platform in Thunder Bay on May 25.

Frank Gunn/Canadian Press

Ontario's Liberal Party has recommitted to spending $1-billion to build a highway to the province's remote, northern Ring of Fire region, regardless of federal government spending.

The funding was the only deviation from the 2014 budget — which marked the Ring of Fire project as contingent on matched federal funding  —  in the Liberal platform released by party leader Kathleen Wynne in Thunder Bay on Sunday.

"We are making it a priority for my government," Ms. Wynne said to cheers from the local crowd. "We will commit $1-billion with or without the federal government involvement."

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The funding, which would start paving roads to spur industry in the area that contains large mineral deposits, was announced earlier this year. When the 2014 budget was released, the Liberal party made the project contingent on matched funding from the federal government. But Ms. Wynne said Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shown little interest in contributing, so her party has re-committed to getting the ball rolling on their own. They pledged to have a development corporation established within 60 days of being re-elected, including First Nations, local communities, private partners, the province and perhaps the federal government.

The rededication to the project, along with the decision to release the platform in Thunder Bay underscores the party's efforts to win votes in Ontario's northern reaches where the NDP holds the bulk of their seats.

Ms. Wynne will also be participating in a debate on northern issues with NDP Leader Andrea Horwath in Thunder Bay on Monday, an event her party skipped in 2011.Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has opted not to attend this time around.

"I wasn't the premier in 2011," Ms. Wynne said when asked why the shift to focus on the north. "I'm telling you that it would never occur to me not to take part in the northern debate."

The platform was based on the same spending and revenue calculations as the budget, which was voted down by the NDP earlier this month, prompting the election. On Sunday, Ms. Wynne elaborated on some of the specific projects and programs that would benefit from the funding outlined in the budget.

The Liberals detailed their prioritized list of transit and infrastructure in the province. The budget earmarked $15-billion for transit projects in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area and $14-billion for project in the rest of the province. For the former allotment, the Liberals pledged to prioritize all-day, two-way GO service, expand the GO lines to Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph, and develop the Brampton Queen Street Rapid Transit line.

In the rest of the province, the Liberal Party introduced a plan to expand the Ottawa LRT, extend the Kitchener-Waterloo LRT to Cambridge and spread GO service throughout the province from Brantford to Niagara to Dufferin County.

There were also specific commitments made in health care  — including capping hospital parking fees  — and education, such as updating the careers curriculum for Grade 10 students to be more hands-on.

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As part of a $130-billion funding allotment for infrastructure, the Liberals also planned to expand natural gas lines to more areas of the province.

The party's plans were unchanged from the budget, with all programs costed under the same framework and a large emphasis remaining on the Liberals' proposed provincial pension plan.  The party's platform suggested a desire to return to the status quo if re-elected, pledging to reintroduce tabled legislation and bring back the 2014 budget unchanged.

"This election is a referendum on the future of Ontario's economy," Ms. Wynne told the crowd at a Thunder Bay motel, posing the election as a choice between her plans and those of Mr. Hudak.

There was limited online access to the platform launch as the party's livestream cut out and connection was spotty, prompting criticism on Twitter from media trying to tune in across the province.

Mr. Hudak hammered the Liberals' big-spending ways Sunday.

"Balancing the budget, spending within your means — it's not a matter of ideology, it's not a matter of partisan interest. It's just a matter of mathematics," he told reporters in Toronto. "They'll promise, promise, promise, and they'll spend, spend, spend and then borrow, borrow, borrow. But if we want to get out of this ditch, we've got to take a very different path."

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Mr. Hudak compared the province to a family. If a household with an annual income of $50,000 spent the way the government currently does, he said, it would rack up so much debt, it would spend roughly $4,660 just paying interest on the credit card.

The NDP criticized the platform for not introducing new ideas.

"The Liberals treat plans like day-old pizza: re-heat old ideas and hope for the best," said John Vanthof, the NDP candidate for the northern riding of Temiskaming-Cochrane.

"The Liberal government has ignored Northerners for more than 10 years. Re-launching their platform in the North will not impress. It is too little, too late."

With a file from Adrian Morrow

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