Voters in Kenora-Rainy River think of mental health, economic transition ahead of spring election

There’s more water than land in “sunset country,” the provincial Kenora—Rainy River riding that surrounds the Lake of the Woods and covers most of Treaty 3 territory, reaching eastward to Ignace, Ont.

The economy that relied on forestry for a century is pivoting to grow other industries like tourism, agriculture and small business, while mining is once again on the rise. The municipalities are service centres for dozens of First Nations that dot the lake and river shores, whose communities and members are taking an increasing role in political and economic affairs.

In 2018, voters in Kenora—Rainy River elected their former federal member, Progressive Conservative (PC) candidate Greg Rickford in 2018, which put an end to two decades of NDP representation. 

In addition to Rickford, here’s who else is running in this spring’s election, according to Elections Ontario: 

  • JoAnne Formanek Gustafson, NDP.
  • Catherine Kiewning, Green Party.
  • Anthony Leek, Liberal Party.
  • Kelvin Boucher-Chicago, New Blue Party.
  • Larry Breiland, Ontario Party.
  • Richard Jonasson, Consensus 
  • Mi’azhikwan, Independent. 

As economies diversify, the electorate shares the most poignant political priorities, but local interests are growing more distinct between communities. 

Kenora

Kenora, the region’s main city near the Manitoba border, has the region’s strongest urban tourism industry, contributing over $40 million annually. But a creeping decline in affordable housing has contributed to a visible increase in homelessness, as well as mental health and addictions issues.

A number of low-income, multi-residential building fires since 2005 partly contributed to the shortage, along with rising rents and a low number of new builds. There are more people on waiting lists for social housing in the city than existing units, and municipal leaders say policing costs are becoming unsustainable.

Liz Visser, a resident of Kenora, Ont., pictured here with her partner George Landon, says a priority for them in the June 2 election is increased social supports for people struggling with homelessness, mental health and addictions. (Submitted by Liz Visser)

Liz Visser and her partner are in their 40s without children, and rent an apartment downtown. She said the holes where buildings used to be has brought drinking and drug use into more public areas, making it even more “undignified” than she can remember it being when she was couch surfing a decade ago after leaving an abusive relationship.

“We’re seeing intergenerational trauma being played out on the streets. The systems in place that serve to oppress people, we’re seeing that and it affects Indigenous people the most,” she said, citing the latest point-in-time count that revealed 90 per cent of unhoused respondents in the city identified as Indigenous.

Fifty new units are under construction this spring, but Visser said real success will require more compassion than available services can provide.

“I want to see infrastructure here. I want to see housing. I want to see buildings,” she said. “I want to see more health programs. I want to see a safe injection site where people can go and be safe, where they’re going to get support and maybe get some more avenues they can go to, [but] we’re continuing with the same recipe. It just gets a new name every time.

“I’m looking out my window right now and I’m just seeing people in pain, just in pain. You hear it and it’s 24/7.”

Wauzhushk Onigum

When Wauzhushk Onigum First Nation held a plebiscite on whether it should build a drinking water system that connects to neighbouring Kenora, Will Landon’s family voted against it. The project went through, but he said he’d rather be on a boil-water advisory than worry about being dependent on non-Indigenous political systems.

The single father, who works for a disaster relief company, doesn’t vote in Canadian or Ontario elections. This time won’t be any different, but he said it’s getting more complicated.

Landon supports Ontario’s initiative to provide funding to search for unmarked graves at St. Mary’s Residential School, as his parents are residential school survivors.

He also sees Ontario has been taking an increased role in Indigenous-Crown relations, particularly related to resource project consultation. He pointed to nearby Grassy Narrows First Nation, whose leadership has protested Ontario granting mining permits to companies against the community’s will.

“It’s important to form relationships with the province due to these shifting responsibilities, but it has to be taken with the utmost caution. Even when we think about how we discuss relationships with the federal government, our relationship is with the Crown, ultimately,” he said.

“There are some people who say you can’t complain if you don’t vote. I don’t think being forced to engage in a foreign system in order to better influence who my partner across the table is should be considered a valid argument anyway. Because my right and title should always be just inherently recognized.”

Fort Frances

Fort Frances residents watched the paper mill demolished in 2021. It was the town’s largest employer for 100 years before it was shuttered in 2014.

Some of that labour gap was filled in the intervening years by the New Gold mine, 65 kilometres west in Richardson Township. It’s expected to produce until 2031.

Fort Frances has kept afloat on the strength of its transportation industry, but the small business sector is struggling. The population fell by over three per cent between 2016 and 2021 while 77 small businesses — 4.5 per cent of the private sector — closed during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Demolition of the former Resolute pulp and paper mill in Fort Frances, Ont., began toward the end of 2020. (Douglas Judson/Twitter)

Amid that uncertainty, James McInerney moved home from “adventuring” on Vancouver Island to be with his mother in Rainy River, who soon died of leukemia. He opened his own flooring company, Super Installer, at the height of pandemic lockdown. Business was very slow at first, but he says it’s picking up now.

To get to where Fort Frances needs to go, McInerney said, it needs to think bigger than the town’s traditional economy. He has found a group of like-minded young professionals in their 20s and 30s, whose ambitions and imaginations are filling the gap between what their town has been and what it could be.

“There’s a new energy — sort of a passing of the torch — that is immersed in a growth mindset in this area, in the entire northwest, I think. There’s that new energy to build something. It doesn’t really work in the city because you get clogged out, but in the smaller towns, there’s more space to work,” said McInerney.

“In terms of politics, recognizing the power of youth and the new energy that’s involved with that — right down to our high schoolers and new entrepreneurs — there’s a lot that’s going to be happening, and if the right people recognize that, there’s going to be some major growth and some major opportunity.”

Rainy River District

The past few years have brought challenges unlike anything Rainy River district farmers have ever seen. Their farms have been through frigid winters, flooding, and drought.

That has brought on the threat of starvation for cattle, importing feed, and in September of 2019, it led the Ontario Farmers Association to launch the province’s first mental health program for agricultural workers, based in Emo.

Murray McDonald is a 56-year-old farmer who has been working his whole life. He operates an 324-hectare plot in Morley, Ont., where he raises 85 beef cattle, which he describes as a bit smaller than most farms in the region. 

Murray McDonald, a 56-year-old farmer in the Rainy River area, says extreme weather events like long, frigid winters, spring flooding and summer droughts have made it more difficult to raise cattle in northwestern Ontario. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

He said these weather events are coming frequently and hitting more quickly than government programs can respond.

“Government knows there’s an issue and they did step to the plate fairly quickly, but if guys are out of hay or feed in July, they can’t wait until September to find out. So it’s just making the programs accessible and easier to apply for.”

He said the rising cost of living is hitting his sector hard, and that’s making life more expensive for all Ontarians.

“Diesel prices for equipment is as high as gasoline at the pumps. It’s escalated freight costs to bring in goods and parts. The government just doesn’t seem to be doing anything to address or care for the rising costs of fuel and the rising cost of everything — for all small businesses, but for farming especially. It’s driving up the price of food in the stores and hurting everyone.”

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