Atikokan ServiceOntario centre under siege
Publication DateWednesday, December 21, 2016 - 9:45am
The government’s assault on northern and rural ServiceOntario centres continues unabated. Recently, the northern community of Ignace was informed that its ServiceOntario centre would be reduced from a 40-hour to a 14-hour weekly operation. Now Atikokan, with a population of 1,400, has been told its ServiceOntario centres doors will be open just 20 hours a week, staffed by two part-time workers.
Carl Thibodeau, OPSEU Region 7 Vice-President, described the drastic cuts to service as a government attack, not only on the residents of Ignace and Atikokan, but on all northerners.
“When you cut the hours at a ServiceOntario centre and lay off staff in small northern towns, you cut at the very lifeblood of the community. Dependable jobs are scarce. We’re isolated, particularly during the winter months. We rely heavily on tourism – which means we need easy access to fishing and hunting licences.
“We’re not Toronto,” Thibodeau continued. “The loss of one full-time job in a small town in the North is equivalent 33 jobs lost in a southern Ontario city. But the politicians at Queen’s Park don’t get it. Or worse, they just don’t give a damn.”
OPSEU Local 725 President Twila Smitsnuk said the hit to Atikokan’s ServiceOntario centre was just the latest in a string of blows dealt by the government in recent years.
“It started in 1996, when the Nym Lake Fire Base was closed. Since then, we’ve suffered cuts to the forest fire service, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry office, Ministry of Transportation staff, and Ministry of Northern Development and Mines staff. You’d think the Ontario government had a dart board and Atikokan was the bull’s eye.”
Thibodeau and Smitsnuk, along with Local 725 Vice-President Jordan Boileau, presented a resolution to Atikokan council on December 12 demanding that the government rescind the cuts to hours and staffing at the ServiceOntario centre. The resolution was adopted unanimously.
“This is just the start,” said Thibodeau following the council meeting. “OPSEU has launched a full-blown campaign to halt the government’s attack on the North. We’re getting our MPPs onside. We’re getting support from councils across northern Ontario. We’re distributing information flyers. We’re launching a postcard campaign.
“We pay taxes like everyone else in this province and we deserve accessible public services, just like everyone else in this province,” he continued. “We’re being treated unfairly once again, and we’re not going to take it lying down.”
OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas said northerners had his unqualified support in pushing back on cuts to their public services.
“The erosion of public services and public sector jobs is not unique to the North. It’s happening right across the province as the Liberals single-mindedly carry out their ruthless agenda of austerity and privatization. But it’s felt more acutely in the North. Their economy is more fragile, with a greater dependence on public services.
“Kathleen Wynne thinks the North doesn’t matter,” he said, “because there aren’t enough votes to make it worth her while. Well, Minister Mauro and Minister Gravelle are from the North, and in 18 months, they’re going to need every northern vote they can get.
“So I say to these ministers: what will it be? Will you pay the cost of keeping these ServiceOntario centres open now? Or will you pay the cost at election time? It’s one or the other. Because northerners have a long memory: they don’t forget.”
Whereas the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services continues to try to shut down ServiceOntario Centres across Ontario, particularly in northern and rural areas, or reduce their operating hours; and
Whereas the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services has announced that, as of spring 2017, the one full-time staff working eight hours per day or 40 hours per week at the ServiceOntario Centre in Atikokan will be reduced to part-time hours of only four hours per day or 20 hours per week, and office services will also be reduced to four hours per day; and
Whereas the closest Service Ontario Centre to Atikokan is located approximately 160 kilometres away in Fort Frances or 200 kilometres away in Thunder Bay; and
Whereas small, northern towns, like Atikokan, rely on government facilities like the ServiceOntario Centre to foster a sense of community, identity, and stability; and
Whereas small, northern towns, like Atikokan, rely heavily on tourism to drive their local economies and, therefore, require their ServiceOntario Centre to be open throughout the week to provide hunting and fishing licences; and
Whereas, with a population of just 2,800, Atikokan needs every good-paying job it can get to support local schools, sports, businesses, and the tax base; and
Whereas the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services’ study failed to include the economic impact of removing jobs from the community; and
Whereas the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services’ website says it is committed to “delivering vital programs, services, and products…to help create a better quality of life for Ontario’s families”; and
Whereas the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing’s website states its mandate as “working with local governments and partners across Ontario to build safe and strong urban and rural communities with dynamic local economies”; and
Whereas the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines’ mandate letter says it will “ensure continued growth in the north” and “deliver on the priorities of northerners”; and
Whereas reducing ServiceOntario hours and eliminating one full-time position does not respect the government’s commitment to quality of life, the priorities of northerners, or fostering dynamic local economies; and
Whereas Service Ontario’s efforts to save money conflict with the government’s mandate regarding vibrant and dynamic northern community economies;
Whereas Atikokan has been targeted for numerous government downsizings over the last several years, and once again our struggling town is being hit;
Now, therefore, be it resolved that the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services rescind its decision to eliminate the full-time job in Atikokan; and
Further be it resolved that the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services maintain full-time hours at the Service Ontario centre in Atikokan, in keeping with the government’s stated commitment to the economic well-being of northern communities, and thereby ensuring that Atikokan residents can access government services where they live; and
Further be it resolved that a copy of this resolution be forwarded to the Honourable Marie-France Lalonde, Minister of Government and Consumer Services; Bill Mauro, MPP for Thunder Bay-Atikokan; Patrick Brown, Leader of the Opposition; Andrea Horwath, Leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party; and to councils representing northern Ontario towns with a ServiceOntario Centre for their support