February 9, 2017 8:00 am
Updated: February 21, 2017 4:33 pm

Ontario Energy Minister says relief from winter disconnections won’t come this year

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Hydro customers in Ontario hoping for a break from the threat of winter disconnections will have to wait another year, says Ontario Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault. But Ontario’s Opposition parties say that’s not good enough, and are calling on the government to move more quickly.

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Despite a growing chorus of opposition to the practice of cutting customers off during winter months, Thibeault says a Bill currently before the Ontario legislature that gives the government powers to prevent utility companies from pulling the plug on customers who cannot afford to pay their bills will not pass in time for this year’s winter season.

“I would like to see this [Bill] passed quickly, but there’s a parliamentary process the opposition parties needed to do,” said Thibeault. “I’m happy now that it’s in committee and that we’ll be able to get this Bill passed and through in time for next year’s winter season.”

Bill 27, or the Burden Reduction Act, is a massive government omnibus Bill first tabled by Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government in June – more than seven months ago.

WATCH: Late power bill payment could get you disconnected, even in winter.

The Bill, which contains more than 150 pages of provisions affecting a third of government ministries, is meant to reduce regulation on small business and industry. It also includes a single provision – 45 words – that once passed will give the Ontario Energy Board the authority to decide when utility companies can and cannot cut off a customer for non-payment.

“I recognize the importance of Bill 27, especially when we’re looking at the regulation that’s in there that talks about no cut offs for customers during winter months,” Thibeault said.

Asked why the government doesn’t simply pass the provision affecting winter disconnects as a standalone piece of legislation – particularly given that both the Conservatives and NDP have said they support ending winter disconnections – Thibeault was ambiguous and seemed to suggest opposition parties were to blame.

“That would have been something we would have been more than happy to do,” Thibeault said. “But you know what? It was something that was brought forward. We weren’t expecting the opposition parties to be so vocal. And you know what? We have to bring it through its process.”

READ MORE: Ontario government wants CUPE’s lawsuit on partial sale of Hydro One dismissed

Thibeault says that while the government plans to move ahead with ending winter disconnects for next year, utility companies in Ontario need to do more to work with customers and prevent the circumstances that lead to disconnections in the first place.

WATCH: Hydro customer threatened with disconnection after missing 1 payment

Thibeault points to Hydro One, the province’s largest utility provider, that voluntarily chose to reconnect all of its 1,400 disconnected customers this winter following  Global News reporting that revealed inconsistencies in the way the company dealt with its clients. He says this practice is the sort of thing companies can do to help those families struggling most.

READ MORE: Ontario utilities continue to threaten disconnection during winter

“There are many processes that the utilities are obligated to go through before they cut some families off,” Thibeault said. “We recognize that companies still need the power to ensure they can collect their revenue, but at the same time they’ve got to look at protecting [consumers].”

Opposition parties call for immediate end to winter disconnects

Both the NDP and conservatives are in favour of ending winter disconnections.

Todd Smith, Conservative MPP and energy critic from Prince Edward – Hastings, says that if the government were to call back the legislature today and present a Bill promising to end winter disconnections the PCs would support it.

“Absolutely, it’s something that we’ve talked about in the past and I know the NDP have as well,” Smith said. “The government has a majority. They could time allocate this Bill to get this done Feb. 21 if they want to. They could actually call the House back early and get this Bill passed if they wanted to.”

Meanwhile, Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath says the practice of disconnecting customers during the winter, regardless of their capacity to pay, is “pretty darn callous.”

“Are we going to see people literally freezing to death this winter because the callous utility has decided – notwithstanding the very bad public policy the Liberals and Conservatives have put in place in this province – that people are going to have to pay the price with their own lives?”

WATCH: Hydro One’s Winter Relief program reconnects skeptical customers

Horwath says that if it wins the next election, the NDP will put an immediate halt to all disconnections. She also says electricity is a necessity of life and no one should have to go without.

“The government can’t shrug it off and they can’t shrug off families in crisis as if these families were just losing their cable TV,” said Horwath. “It is absolutely inhumane in Ontario to have your electricity source cut out from under you. How do you survive? I mean, literally, how do you survive?”

Patrick Brown, leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, says Ontario’s growing energy crisis is an “epidemic.”

“There’s no empathy for the position the people are in,” Brown said. “I’m watching on Global TV about people washing in plastic bags or not being able to afford to put food on the table. I don’t think this government appreciates the position they have put Ontarians in.”

READ MORE: Brantford Power under investigation by the Ontario Energy Board

Brown says that as premier he would impose an immediate moratorium on winter disconnections.

“The Minister of Energy needs to get his act together,” said Brown. “We have an energy crisis that is the result of the government’s reckless hydro policy and I think you’re starting to see it really show.”

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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