Having lost one battle in their effort to close rural and northern ServiceOntario centres , the Ontario Liberals have changed tactics. Rather than closing them outright, they will reduce operating hours.
OPSEU Local 726 President John Coady (third from the right in blue) with Mayor Lee Kennard (farthest right) and
members of council and the local.
That’s the strategy in Ignace, a township of 1,200 people in northwestern Ontario. The government has informed the two-full time staff that, starting January, their hours at the town’s ServiceOntario centre will be cut to one eight-hour shift each. That means Ignace residents will have access to the centre just 16 hours a week.
Local OPSEU members are leaping to save these critical community services and are engaging community groups in the fight. The local business leaders provided Local 726 President John Coady with the opportunity to explain the importance of services provided by ServiceOntario and the value of full‑time employment for residents committed to the town. The Ignace Local Business Association roundly rejected the proposal of hours reduction and outlined its rationale to maintain the current level of service in a detailed letter to ServiceOntario.
Armed with the support of the business community and OPSEU brothers and sisters from Thunder Bay, Dryden, and Kenora, Coady presented a resolution to the Township of Ignace Council. The council fully supported the resolution and provided specific examples themselves of how helpful ServiceOntario has been to them and their families. One councillor provided an example of how the moving of services to Dryden through the privatization of TestDrive had already been a challenge for his family. All members of council agreed that the loss of the local CIBC branch had been a burden to community members, many of whom are elderly.
“The loss of two full-time jobs in our little town is like losing 200 in Thunder Bay,” said Ignace Mayor Lee Kennard as he and Councillor Al Graver joined the local in showing their support for the resolution following the meeting. “It’s important that OPSEU and communities like Ignace collaborate on informing the government on the impact that these decisions, made at Queen’s Park, have on small northern communities.
“Every job matters,” the mayor continued,” and every reduction in service has a severe impact on residents. Not everyone, particularly the elderly, has a smartphone or computer at home to access the online services they need.”
OPSEU Region 7 Vice-President Carl Thibodeau said the government’s plan would hurt the whole community. “The people of Ignace are feeling sucker-punched. The closest ServiceOntario centre is 110 kilometres away in Dryden. This will not only hurt the public. Local business owners are terrified a limited ability to get fishing and hunting licences will spell doom for their operations.”
Thibodeau said the virtual closing would put the town’s whole future at risk. “Ignace is already struggling,” he said. “Public facilities like a ServiceOntario centre bestow a sense of identity and substance on small communities. It makes them stronger.
“Cutting back on public services sends the wrong signal.”
OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas affirmed the union’s unconditional support for publicly operated ServiceOntario centres in every corner of the province. “The people of Ignace want, need, and deserve full-time public services,” he said, “and we’re going to fight hard to ensure the lights stay on at the ServiceOntario centre five days a week.
“Endangering the survival of a small town to save a few bucks is just incredibly short-sighted,” he continued. “Unfortunately, the Liberals can’t see beyond the numbers on a balance sheet. But governing is not a business, and providing public services is not a line item expense – it’s an investment in people.”
Thomas said the Premier and her government were completely out of touch with the needs and aspirations of ordinary people. “It’s time they got their noses out of corporate brochures,” he said, “and started talking to Ontarians on Main Street – not just bankers on Bay Street.”