Longstanding Thompson MLA and NDP candidate Steve Ashton was the second speaker in the Thompson Chamber of Commerce election series April 6, presenting his vision of northern governance to the chamber.
Ashton referenced his long history with both Thompson and the NDP, and the benefit or being represented by a party in power: “I’ve made no bones about one thing: ever since I’ve been elected, my goal as MLA has been to put Thompson and the north first, and I’m proud of the fact that our party and our government have been there for Thompson and Northern Manitoba.”
Key to the NDP’s industrial development plan is Manitoba Hydro, a point of strong contention between the Progressive Conservative and NDP platforms. Ashton cited hydro projects as a powerful economic presence: “There are over 1,200 people working in Keeyask, the majority of them Northern Manitobans.” Ashton also cited Manitoba’s Hydro rates as among the lowest on the continent, providing affordable energy to industrial projects. He also noted that local businesses had received roughly $44 million in contracts as a combined result of Keeyask and Bipole III construction.
Hydro had also led to education, where Ashton cited his role in helping to establish the new trades centre being constructed in conjunction with R.D. Parker Collegiate and University College of the North. The trades centre will provide pre-apprenticeship and college-level training for northerners leaving high school.
Ashton also noted the multitude of healthcare facilities that have been recently constructed throughout his term, including the dialysis unit, youth crisis centre, and the chemotherapy unit, lobbied for by the late Shelley Carey. Like PC candidate Kelly Bindle, Ashton also pledged to fight for personal care home beds in the north. “The federal government over the last 10-plus years has frozen the construction budget for personal care homes, so there’s an need across the region, and it’s clear we need to identify Thompson as a priority.” He also made the acquisition of a northern MRI unit in Thompson as a priority.
Ashton also proudly cited his achievements in infrastructure: “When I started, our share was five per cent of a $90 million budget. This year alone, we’re investing in excess of $200 million both on new roads in the East Side Road Authority, and in existing roads. We’re almost done upgrades on 373 and 374, and we’re going to be making significant work on 280 and 391 into Nelson House and Split Lake.” Among his promises, Ashton pledged to continue to develop all-weather roads to remote communities. “With climate change, we will not have winter roads in the future.”
Chamber president Oswald Sawh began questions by elaborating on Ashton’s themes in education: “We spoke last week about declining membership, and we read in the newspaper a little while ago about the increasing gap in graduation rates between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students. What are your thoughts on how that would be addressed?”
Ashton noted that the removal of the two per cent cap on funding increases on-reserve would be a significant step forward for remote education. Ashton also notes that part of the increase in funding is due to recognizing that many northern students require additional programming.
Brenda Davidson of the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities asked Ashton what he would do to fill gaps in the provinces MarketAbiltities program, which offers employment services for the physically and mentally impaired. Davidson notes that the programs are understaffed, and large numbers of northern applications are regularly rejected. “I’ve heard from district resource teachers that they’ve stopped sending referrals in, because they don’t open them. This really impacts students transitioning from high school, and we see them getting involved with the justice system because of their vulnerability, or they end up on EIA.”
Ashton stressed the need to create a conducive educational environment which involves readily available jobs that exist between basic high school education, and full two-year and four-year programs. But more than anything, disabled individuals need supports to handle barriers in the rest of their lives
“One thing we lack is supportive housing,” he said. “The key element is having not an institutional environment, but an area where they do receive the supports they need, medical or not, and it seems to me that’s an area that we’re lacking in Thompson.”
Echoing Bindle, Ashton also attributed MarketAbilities’ poor northern access to the increasing centralization of services in Northern Manitoba: “I find that’s an issue at times: people will just assume the north is the north, though Flin Flon and Thompson are two different communities.”
“My stance on disability issues is,” Ashton added, “that we think we do a lot better than we do. I talk to people who feel trapped in their own homes, because as soon as they get out of their driveway, their wheelchair is too big for the sidewalk.”
Penny Byer asked whether Ashton would support the construction of a northern restorative justice facility, focusing on young, first-time offenders “Right now, we have first time offenders, people who aren’t hardened criminals, end up spending time in the facilities down south, where they get an education in how to become a hardened criminal. When they come back home, the problem is escalated.”
“I’m a great believer in moving away from institutions,” noted Ashton, citing a figure he mentioned earlier – each occupied prison bed running an annual cost of $100,000. “You could provide funding to organizations who provide youth services with that. $100,000 a year would provide 24-hour-a-day coverage.” However, Ashton noted he was very interested in instituting restorative justice programs: “I think one of the big problems is that we don’t have a system that recognizes restorative justice efforts. I’m not sure if an institution is the answer, I think the answer is to put resources into the community, and alternate models for kids who get in trouble.”
Ultimately, Ashton insisted that the way forward was not in frugality, but in investment: “I’m proud of the fact that we have more doctors today than we had when we first came to office, more nurses than when we came to office, and more teachers than when we came to office. We’ve rejected cuts and austerity, but that’s not to say that more doesn’t need to be done.”