Fact-checking the gas tax talk in the Ontario election leaders’ debate

This week's Political Climate newsletter careens from a whopping 565 pages of Ring of Fire chatter to a paltry 10 minutes of climate discussion

Is $800 a lot of money? I guess it depends on what it’s for. Reporter Emma McIntosh, for example, spent $796 on 20 freedom-of-information requests for her most recent story

When she filed the requests, Emma was looking for conversations between the Ontario and federal governments over the mineral-rich Ring of Fire in the James Bay Lowlands. Specifically, Emma is interested in the $1 billion Ontario is asking for in order to build roads to the remote region, without which no industry can happen. The delicate ecosystem is home to many First Nations that have differing opinions on development: some Indigenous communities want a road whether or not the ring is mined.  

The requests turned up 565 pages — “luckily I didn’t have to read them all at once,” says Emma, who’s been working on this story for months. What those internal memos and reports show is that negotiations between the two governments about that $1 billion have gone just about nowhere in the four years Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives have been in power. 

And according to the documents Emma read, the provincial minister responsible for mining, Greg Rickford, is getting increasingly aggressive with Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. “It goes from ‘I have an interesting business opportunity for you’ to being really harsh, really trying to force them,” Emma says. 

The province has been covering some of the costs for consultation with First Nations that both governments need for their environmental assessments. In February, Rickford argued that Ontario is essentially subsidizing the federal assessment and should be paid back.

“I feel it is necessary to seek an immediate contribution from Canada as reimbursement for these costs incurred, and I am proposing our officials begin discussions immediately on this initial payment,” Rickford wrote in a letter sent to federal ministers.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry Greg Rickford sit at a table with microphones in front of them, both wearing suits.
Doug Ford and Greg Rickford, who has served as Ontario’s minister responsible for mining for the past four years, speak at a press conference on April 14, 2022. Photo: Government of Ontario

Maybe $40 per request isn’t too much for info this juicy, but costs didn’t break down that way. The two governments responded very differently to Emma’s requests. “It was much more difficult to get information and much more expensive to do that with the provincial government,” she says. The federal government sent documents faster, with fewer blackouts, sometimes for free.  

“The provincial government would charge fees — the highest was $187 for one single request — and even then the information they delivered was often heavily redacted,” she says. “Clearly the provincial government was more committed to secrecy.” Ontario wouldn’t provide a recent cost estimate for road access to the Ring of Fire, and actually tried to charge The Narwhal $67.50 for denying Emma’s request. When she pushed back, they waived the fee. 

All this paperwork is still worth it, redactions and all — sometimes, those big black boxes give us ideas of what freedom-of-information requests to file next. They also shed light on what types of discussions governments are trying to hide from the public’s view. 

If you value the work that Emma and fellow Ontario reporter Fatima Syed are doing, please consider becoming a member today. We’re digging deep into environmental issues in Ontario that other publications aren’t, and it can get expensive. Sign up to become a Narwhal now and you’ll get our gorgeous print issue full of a year’s worth of beautiful stories.

Make sure to read Emma’s story: while the peatlands of James Bay are far from where most Ontarians live, the minerals there could play an important role in electric vehicle manufacturing, which every party leader is touting as a big part of the province’s economic future this election campaign. And issues of First Nations consent, and whether it’s ever a good idea to disturb untouched carbon sinks, are relevant every day. 

Last night, the party leaders’ debate was 90 minutes long, but only 10 of them were spent talking about the environment (almost all by Green Party leader Mike Schreiner). If you’d like to hear more about the Ring of Fire and other important climate issues in this Ontario election, please come to our forum tomorrow at 6 p.m. ET over Zoom. You’ll have a chance to ask questions of NDP and Liberal environment critics and the deputy Green leader. (So far, though, the PCs aren’t sending Environment Minister David Piccini). We’ll be talking about how to confront the climate crisis while also dealing with other challenges, including housing affordability. 

See you tomorrow!

Denise Balkissoon
Ontario bureau chief

Illustrated title in comic book style: "Fact check of the week."

Will every party but the Progressive Conservatives raise the gas tax?

Just minutes into last night’s provincial leaders’ debate, there was already bickering about Ontario’s gas tax. Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford promised repeatedly to cut it — and also claimed repeatedly that the other party leaders would increase it. “All three of you are about hiking up gas prices,” Ford said to NDP leader Andrea Horwath, Green leader Mike Schreiner and Liberal leader Steven Del Duca. 

It was frustrating to see the debate’s brief, not-even-five-minute section dedicated to climate quickly derail into a conversation about Ford’s attendance record in the legislature. But, I digress. 

Ford’s claim isn’t true. The Ontario NDP has proposed to keep the tax, but Horwath has not said she’d increase it once in office. The NDP platform also proposes to increase regulations of “the retail price and wholesale mark-up of gas to stop big oil companies from gouging Ontarians.” 

The Green Party platform doesn’t mention the gas tax. During Monday’s debate, Schreiner interrupted Ford as the incumbent premier touted his party’s many moves to lower the cost of driving: “You’re going to stand here and defend Big Oil when we’re in a climate emergency? You’re literally going to defend Big Oil in a climate emergency? Really?” 

Meanwhile, the Liberals have said they’ll go through with Ford’s six month gas tax cut, set to begin July 1, although there is oddly no mention of the tax in the party platform. — Fatima

Illustrated title in comic book style: "ELXN SZN EXTRAS."
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