Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says rising hydro bills are an “urgent issue” across the province, marking an about-face for the Liberal government who had previously downplayed rising energy costs for rural residents.
Wynne said in the Scarborough-Rouge River byelection the most consistent issue her government heard from Ontarians was the rising cost of electricity bills.
“It’s not something that is isolated to one riding in Toronto. It’s a concern across the province and I recognize that,” Wynne told reporters Wednesday. “I’ve heard those concerns and those concerns will become part of our considerations as we go.”
She called the matter an “urgent issue” for the Minister of Energy Glenn Thibeault.
“We had to make the investments that we made to have the reliable electricity system in the province,” Wynne said. “I recognize that there’s a cost associated with them and I recognized that before the byelection and I’ve said we understand that we need to take that into account and come up with increasing or further mitigations.”
Francesca Dobbyn, executive director of the United Way of Bruce County said she was “thrilled” the premier had “finally heard that enough is enough.”
“It’s about time somebody recognized the crisis going on, not just here in rural Ontario but across Ontario where people are struggling with these extremely high utility bills,” she said.
“There’s definitely a big issue going on in our community and it’s become an urgent issue and it’s definitely a crisis.”
Dobbyn said she wanted to see the provincial government engage with the charitable sector and ask what they and the community needs to resolve the issue across the province.
“They need to engage with those of us that are on the ground with these issues, rather than just making decisions and listening to the for-profit companies that have the ear of the politicians,” she said, adding that increasing the Ontario Energy Support Program up from $30 would go a long way in helping consumers.
“Double it. Just immediately flat out anybody who qualifies — double it. … Put a moratorium on disconnection right now. Just stop until we get an idea of what needs to happen and just slow this down and talk to us.”
The change in rhetoric from the Wynne government follows extensive reporting by Global News on the skyrocketing electricity rates and the financial toll it’s having on rural residents in Ontario that many have described as a crisis.
When Global News spoke with Thibeault in July, he was reluctant to say energy costs had reached a crisis point, instead urging residents to conserve more.
“I think it’s important for people to understand there’s a cost associated with getting the power from the generating station,” said Thibeault. “Every time someone turns on the light switch, or plugs something in, there’s a cost associated with that.”
Numbers released last month by the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) showed 567,000 Ontario electricity customer accounts were in arrears by end of 2015, owing $172.5 million, a significant increased from the 472,620 customers who owed roughly $108 million in 2013.
Earlier this week, the Progressive Conservatives scored a shocking upset earlier this week in the Scarborough-Rouge River byelection. City councillor Raymond Cho won the riding, defeating the Liberals in a seat they have held since it was created in 1999.
After the stunning defeat, Premier Wynne admitted rising hydro rates are becoming a political issue she cannot ignore.
“We heard at the door that hydro rates are increasingly challenging for people,” she wrote. “I understand, as do my ministers, that the government needs to focus on helping people with their everyday expenses.”
Jacques Bourbeau and Adam Miller contributed to this report