Wendy Stephen – Ontario New Democratic Party

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Brandon: How would your party support rural education, and what is your stance on the closure and amalgamation of rural schools? 

Wendy: I am actually a public education person. I’m a teacher, and I’ve been doing this for ten years. I have lived through the cuts of the Conservatives. I have lived through the cuts of the Liberals. And it’s no mistake that I’m running for the NDP. The online learning that the Ford government is proposing rurally, that makes absolutely no sense. You know, it’s just inequitable for people who can’t access proper Internet. The only party which actually backs public [education] is the NDP, and they back education workers as well, so that’s why I’m hanging my hat here as an education worker. One of the major things that really needs to happen is to update the education funding formula, because it really is based on population, not on what people actually need. And so, again, that disproportionately impacts rural communities. I know there have been a lot of small school closures, and that’s the heart of a small community. We really need those places to stay up and running. It’s the heart, it’s the hub. It’s where clubs meet and teams play, and we should be doing that. I think it has to come back to what the residents and parents actually want, and looking at maybe outside-the-box creative solutions instead of closing a school. So perhaps an EarlyON centre would be in the building as well as the public school. We’re smart people. Why can’t we figure this out? Sometimes we need to change what we already have in order to make it continue working. I went to Queen’s Park to protest Bill 115, and again to protest Doug Ford’s online learning and his cuts.

Brandon: What would your party do to support small businesses and local commerce?

Wendy: One thing that I have certainly noticed is that the Liberals and Conservatives have been very Toronto focused. Everything is about the GTA, and it’s as though Eastern Ontario doesn’t exist – Cornwall and all the surrounding small towns. We’re not even on the map for them, and that’s just not okay. We saw again during the pandemic, Doug Ford’s all about “I’m for business”, which on one hand is true because the Costcos and Walmarts of the world got to stay open, and they did just fine. But small businesses who sold the exact same things had to close because of these arbitrary rules that he set.

And so I think that there’s this misperception that Conservative governments are supporting business, but they’re not here for small businesses and small towns at all. They’re focused on big developers and big dollars. That’s where they focus their energy and attention. When it comes to actually supporting downtowns and small businesses and rural communities, what we really need to see is a shift in the way the government is working with municipalities. What’s happened up to this point is that the provincial government has downloaded that responsibility on to municipalities. And so, when they’re paying for all these things, they don’t have the money that is needed in order to revitalize downtowns and parks, and all of these other projects that make a town livable and beautiful and a place where people want to live and be.

What we want to do is actually provide, by paying our fair share, stable, reliable funding to municipalities so they can actually plan long term, not wondering what’s coming their way. If we’re paying our fair share for things like schools and health care and infrastructure and all of these things, then that will free up municipal funds to do other things. Like rebuilding these downtowns. These places are amazing, and our communities are better for them. We want to bring broadband as well across rural Ontario by 2025 at the latest, because that’s an equity and access thing and businesses need it too.

Brandon: North Dundas is a growing community, are there any projects that would be investment priorities for the province locally?

Wendy: Municipalities and the province need to work together. First of all, that relationship seems to be broken, and I think we can do that much better. Some of the things that the province needs to work with, obviously broadband is one of those things. Affordable housing, transportation links to Ottawa, because I know it’s a big commuter place as well. And we need our public schools and our public health systems, and these services that make these communities places that people actually want to live and stay and play and work. The decisions for all of these local projects, they have to come from councils and from the people. I’m in absolutely no position to tell people what they want, or what they should have. So I, as MPP, would have absolutely an open door policy.

Brandon: Are there any issues that locals have touched base with you about which you intend to bring forward if elected as MPP?

Wendy: People are concerned about public health care and long term care, after seeing what happened in the pandemic. People are concerned about public education. And we’ve been seeing this chronic underfunding, especially in rural areas, and people want that to stop. The Conservative representation we’ve had to this point hasn’t really done a lot, Eastern Ontario is completely ignored. It’s like we don’t even exist, and the government doesn’t even have us on their radar. It’s like everything stops at Brockville, and then you go east from there and they’re like, “wait, who?” So I think that part of it is we need someone like me who will actually advocate for the needs of the communities.

Brandon: What is your take on the affordable housing crisis locally, and what is the solution?

Wendy: It’s a complex issue, isn’t it? Fundamentally, though, housing is a human right. And I think that sometimes people forget that it’s one of the most important social determinants of health, and we know that it is critically important for everyone to have a safe and affordable place to live. The NDP are going to build 100,000 new, affordable homes that are geared to income. We’re building 150,000 non-market homes that are charging below market rents. Provincially, we’re repairing 260,000 social housing units and building 60,000 new supportive housing units.

We’re going to bring back rent control and we’re going to be starting a program where, for first time homebuyers, we invest 10% in their down payment. Rural municipalities have been chronically underfunded. What we really need to take a look at, and what we will take a look at, is what’s needed in areas like North Dundas and the rest of the riding too, so that we can actually focus on needs and get the housing that meets the needs of the people who live here.

Brandon: How would you support the largely rural population of this riding in being heard at Queen’s Park?

Wendy: Just as we talked about, SDSG has been completely ignored. The province doesn’t know we exist, and we have to change that if we’re going to grow and improve here. So again, working really closely with municipalities is going to be key. Ongoing communication. And it doesn’t mean everything’s going to be easy and we’ll agree on everything. But we have to be able to have that respectful dialogue back and forth and see what we can actually accomplish together. There’s been a lot of divisiveness, and I think we need to have a little more cohesion here in order to move forward and make a beautiful place for all of us to be. I’ll have, of course, an open door policy. I’m not hiding from anyone. And also, this riding is huge, and I think it’s really important for, hopefully me, but whoever is the MPP, to remember that it is not just an urban area, there is a significant rural space here and those people matter too.

Brandon: Do you believe the COVID-19 pandemic is still of concern locally?

Wendy: What I have to say is, pandemics know no boundaries. They are not just an urban issue. The new variants are highly transmissible, and COVID is here, it’s everywhere. It’s really important that we’re vigilant in order to protect the vulnerable people like our seniors and small children and the immuno-compromised. I do respect masking choices. It is a choice. There’s no one telling you, you have to wear a mask. That’s up to you. But I really do think that we still need to be ready in case another wave comes, or when another wave comes. And I can say for certain that an NDP government will be ready, unlike the Conservatives before us.

Brandon: That’s it for my questions. Is there anything you want to add?

Wendy: My main message to people has been: if you want something different, you need to vote for something different. We can’t keep electing the same political parties just because it’s always been that way. If you want change and you want progress, vote for something else. Take a look at the platforms and decide who best actually represents your values and who has the integrity to actually follow through with what they say they’re going to do. I think that if we could elect a party that actually represents people, instead of corporations and very, very wealthy donors, I think that we could lift people up and have a way more beautiful and satisfying community.

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