PARRY SOUND, Ont. - As the Tories push to make inroads into Ontario's north, their leader Doug Ford focused the brunt of his attacks during the election's northern debate on the NDP, a party that has traditionally enjoyed support in the region and has recently seen momentum in the polls.
Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, meanwhile, stayed on the defensive through much of Friday's debate in Parry Sound, Ont., the second time the leaders of the three main parties faced off this week.
Ford's barbs remained largely broad, however — the same attacks on so-called elites and what he considers reckless spending that have dominated his campaign so far — while his opponents took him and each other to task on policies specific to the region.
The Progressive Conservative leader warned voters about an NDP government, harkening back to the last time they held power, in the 1990s, saying they "destroyed this province."
He also slammed an NDP candidate who he says was a professional anti-mining activist. The NDP used to claim to fight for workers in mines, mills and factories, but now serve "downtown Toronto elites" and environmental "extremists," Ford said.
Ford asked New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath which NDP is running in this election but she turned the tables, noting Ford has not yet released a fully costed platform.
"I'm going to be the NDP that is going to be honest and transparent about my plan," the leader of the third party said. "It was launched two weeks before this election even started. It is fully costed ... Mr. Ford, where's your plan? How are people going to know who you are going to be if you don't provide a plan?"
Ford said he wouldn't let "a bunch of extremists (in) downtown Toronto decide what the people of the north are going to do."
Horwath laughed, saying, "what you're going to do is drive a bulldozer through the Ring of Fire and pave over the Greenbelt — talk about extremism."
Ford has reversed a promise to allow housing construction in the Greenbelt, a protected greenspace around the Greater Toronto Area, and spoken about driving a bulldozer to get roads built in the Ring of Fire, a mineral-rich region northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont.
The Liberal government has long promised to develop the area and last year secured an agreement with three First Nations to start road construction to one of the world's richest deposits of chromite — used to make stainless steel — as well as nickel, copper and platinum.
Much of the debate centred on involving northern communities in making decisions that affect the region, with Wynne touting her government's collaboration on mining projects, endangered species legislation and other issues, and Horwath accusing her of treating the north as an afterthought.
While Ford criticized the Liberal record on the Ring of Fire as being all talk, Wynne says he has another thing coming if he believes the region will move ahead without respectful dialogue.
"I acknowledge the conversation around the Ring of Fire with companies and with First Nations, it has taken time, but we are doing it in a way that is going to ensure that everyone who has the opportunity to benefit is actually going to benefit," Wynne said.
The leaders also clashed on health care, with Ford blaming Liberal policies for long wait times as well as layoffs and bed cuts at hospitals in the region.
"I don't believe in a bunch of politicians telling the front-line nurses, the front-line doctors how to deliver health care," he said.
Wynne said she had worked with communities to deliver health care "as close to home as possible" and highlighted hospital investments in her government's spring budget.
Horwath took a page from Ford's playbook in pointing out that the last Tory government, under Mike Harris, closed hospitals and fired nurses.
"This time, Mr. Ford's talking about all kinds of cuts but he's not being honest with people about what those cuts look like here in northern Ontario or anywhere else," she said.
Asked whether they would support an immigration pilot program similar to what is used to combat population decline and draw workers to Atlantic Canada, both Wynne and Horwath said they would consider it. Ford, however, said he would "take care of our own first."
"Once we take care of our own, we exhaust, we exhaust every single avenue, don't have anyone that could fill a job, then I'd be open to that," he said.
Ford's approach made him appear uninformed on northern issues in a debate that delved into the deeper points of policy and took place before local politicians, said Laure Paquette, a political science professor at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.
Aside from a few statistics on hospitals, the Tory leader gave no indication that he knows anything about the north, and rehashed "cookie cutter" attacks, Paquette said, noting that some of Ford's remarks drew scoffs from the crowd.
But while Wynne showed her policy chops and Horwath came out strong, it's possible Ford's "simple, consistent" message may resonate better with northern voters, who are not necessarily as interested in details as Friday's audience.
The Tories have made a push in the north, with Ford travelling there repeatedly since winning the party leadership in March.
But he remains largely unknown in the region, said Roger Sigouin, mayor of the community of Hearst, adding that he hadn't yet formed an opinion on Ford.
"People are tired of seeing politics as they are now, whichever party's comes into power, nothing changes," he said in French. "People want to see change but we need to be careful to see what kind of change we're bringing in."
Tom Lundy, a councillor in the Township of the Archipelago, said that while he votes based on the local candidate rather than the leader or party, health care would be a deciding factor.
"We had a doctor pass away back in December and that put 1,200 patients out on the street without a doctor. We didn't have enough to fill them all so they had to have a lottery and some people are still without a doctor... I'm not sure any one of the three (leaders) addressed how to fix it."