Kenora-Rainy River voters think about mental health and economic transition ahead of spring election

There is more water than land in “Sunset Country,” the provincial riding of Kenora—Rainy River that surrounds Lake of the Woods and covers most of Treaty 3 territory, stretching eastward. east to Ignace, Ontario.

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

In 2018, Kenora—Rainy River voters elected their former MP, Progressive Conservative (PC) candidate Greg Rickford in 2018, ending two decades of NDP representation.

In addition to Rickford, here’s who else is running in the election this spring, 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 increasingly distinct between communities.

Kenora

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

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

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

Liz Visser and her partner are a couple in their forties without children who rent an apartment downtown. She says holes in buildings have brought alcohol and drug use to more public spaces, making her even more ‘unworthy’ than she remembered when she couchsurfed there ten years after leaving an abusive relationship.

“We see intergenerational trauma playing out in the streets. The systems in place that serve to oppress people, we see that and it affects Indigenous people the most,” she says, citing the latest point count. which revealed that 90% of those surveyed without housing in the city identified as indigenous.

Fifty new units are under construction this spring, but Visser says true success will require more compassion than the services available 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 find other avenues that they can go to, [but] we continue with the same recipe. It just takes on a new name every time,” Visser said.

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

Wauzhushk Onigum

When the Wauzhushk Onigum First Nation held a plebiscite on whether to build a drinking water system to connect to nearby Kenora, Will Landon’s family voted against it. The project was successful, but he says he would rather be subject to a boil water advisory than worry about being dependent on non-Indigenous political systems.

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

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

It also finds that Ontario is playing an increased role in Indigenous-Crown relations, particularly in consultation on resource projects. It points to the neighboring Grassy Narrows First Nation, whose leaders have protested Ontario granting mining permits to companies against the wishes of the community.

“Building a relationship with the province is important because of these changing responsibilities, but it must be taken with the utmost caution. Even when we think about how we discuss relations with the federal government, our relationship is with the Crown, ultimately,” he says.

“There are people who say you can’t complain if you don’t vote. I don’t think being forced to engage in an alien system in order to better influence who my partner opposite is should be considered a valid argument anyway because my right and title should always be inherently recognized.

Fort Frances

Residents of Fort Frances saw the paper mill demolished in 2021, which had been the city’s largest employer for 100 years before it closed in 2014.

Some of this labor shortage was filled in the years that followed by the New Gold mine, 65 kilometers to the west in Richardson Township. It should produce until 2031.

Fort Frances has kept itself afloat on the strength of its transportation industry, but the small business sector is struggling. The population fell by more than 3% between 2016 and 2021, while 77 small businesses – 4.5% of the private sector – closed during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

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

Amid this uncertainty, James McInerney moved from “adventure” on Vancouver Island to be with his mother in Rainy River, who soon died of leukaemia. He opened his own flooring business, Super Installer, during the height of the pandemic lockdown. Business was very slow at first, but he says it is picking up now.

To get to where Fort Frances needs to go, McInerney says, you have to think bigger than the city’s traditional economy. He found a group of like-minded young professionals in their twenties and thirties, whose ambitions and imaginations are bridging the gap between what their city has been and what it could be.

“There’s a new energy – kind of a passing of the torch – that’s immersed in a growth mindset in this area, all over the northwest, I think. There’s this new energy to build something It doesn’t really work in the city because you’re stuffed up, but in smaller towns there’s more space to work,” McInerney said.

“In terms of politics, recognizing the power of youth and the new energy associated with it – right down to our high school students and new entrepreneurs – a lot will happen, and if the right people recognize that, there will be major growth and major opportunity.”

Rainy River District

The past few years have brought unprecedented challenges for farmers in the Rainy River District. Their farms have weathered freezing winters, floods and droughts.

This led to the threat of livestock starvation, the importation of animal feed, and in September 2019 it led the Ontario Farmers Association to launch the province’s first mental health program for agricultural workers, based to Emo.

Murray McDonald is a 56-year-old farmer who has worked his whole life. He operates an 800-acre parcel in Morley, Ontario, where he raises 85 beef cattle, which he describes as a bit smaller than most farms in the area.

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

He says these weather events happen frequently and strike faster than government programs can respond to them.

“The government knows there’s a problem and they moved in pretty quickly, but if the guys are out of hay or food in July, they can’t wait until September to find out. therefore simply acts to make the programs accessible and easier to apply for.”

He says the rising cost of living is hitting his industry hard and it’s making life more expensive for all Ontarians.

“Diesel prices for equipment are as high as petrol at the pump. There is an increase in transport costs to bring in goods and parts. The government just doesn’t seem to be doing anything to deal with or deal with rising fuel costs and rising costs of everything — for all small businesses, but especially agriculture. This drives up the price of food in stores and hurts everyone.