THUNDER BAY, Ont. - Ontario's Liberal leadership contenders clashed Sunday over the question of whether northern Ontario should be given more independence to resolve its own economic and social issues.

Facing off in Thunder Bay for the second official debate, the seven rivals tried to fight the perception that the governing Liberals are too Toronto-centric and neglecting a region that will likely become one of the toughest battlegrounds in the next provincial election.

It may be a difficult sell, given the slow progress in building infrastructure to develop the Ring of Fire chromite deposit and the cash-strapped government's decision to privatize the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission and freeze a key energy project.

Other problems plaguing the Liberals were on display outside the lecture hall at Lakehead University, where dozens of labour and anti-wind turbine protesters picketed the debate. Most were from the union representing public high-school teachers, who wanted to show their displeasure with a controversial new law that gives the government the power to stop strikes, freeze wages and cut benefits.

Inside, the candidates answered pre-selected questions centering on education, aboriginal and northern issues. But the discussion kept circling back to whether northern Ontario should have the power to make its own decisions on creating jobs, tackling aboriginal issues and maintaining public services.

While all agreed that northern Ontario needs a say, they disagreed on how much independence should be given to the region.

Leveraging his experience as the former mayor of Winnipeg, Glen Murray pledged to give the north its own regional government so it can have more say over energy, infrastructure and natural resources. The promise has earned Murray the endorsement of four northern mayors, including Thunder Bay's Keith Hobbs.

"If you look at what's happening in Britain with devolving power to Scotland and Wales, why is this happening all over the world?" he said. "Because this new economy is regional and decisions have to be made much faster."

But former aboriginal affairs minister Kathleen Wynne, who promised to form a northern cabinet committee, said she has some reservations about the idea.

"My only caveat and caution is that sometimes in this conversation, it starts to sound like we're talking about a separation process, and I don't think that's where we should go," she said.

"I believe we're one Ontario. I believe we should stay as one Ontario."

Murray also criticized the government's decision to sell off the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission, which employs thousands of workers. Opponents of the privatization plan argue it provides a vital service in a region where people often must travel long distances to get to work, school and access public services like hospitals.

"The ONTC, if it was in the south, I'm not sure we would have made decisions that way," he said.

It was "never a great service," Murray added. "If northerners were planning their transportation needs, it wouldn't look like it does today."

Former transportation minister Harinder Takhar says he'd still privatize the money-losing ONTC, but he'd keep it intact by requiring that it be run as an independent, self-sustaining entity. Charles Sousa, a former labour minister, distanced himself from the ONTC selloff, saying he would support a "reliable and sustainable" transit commission.

The Liberals have also been under fire for putting plans on hold to convert a coal-fired generating station in the city to natural gas, saying the Ontario Power Authority believes the energy needs of the region can be met without conversion and scrapping the project would save $400 million.

Many of the candidates, who also included Gerard Kennedy, Eric Hoskins and Sandra Pupatello, agreed that aboriginal issues must be a top priority for the next premier, who must forge a new relationship with First Nations in new mining ventures, find ways to fight poverty and improve education and housing.

Wynne said she'll partner with the federal government to provide better education for aboriginal youth — a promise the provincial Liberals made in their last throne speech.

Takhar proposed a First Nations and Metis bill of rights to help them harness the north's economic potential. He also promised a $500,000 fund to promote the region for film and television projects — one of the more novel ideas for job creation.

But the New Democrats, who will likely be the Liberals' main competition in the region during the next election, dismissed what they called the party's sudden interest in the north after decades of neglect.

"These are the same McGuinty Liberals who brought us the highest electricity prices in Canada, sold off the ONTC, passed the Far North Act and spent million cancelling plants in Mississauga but can't seem to complete one in Thunder Bay," New Democrat Gilles Bisson said in a release.

"Northerners aren't going to be easily impressed after nearly a decade of neglect."

Meanwhile, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said he would try to create more jobs, not another layer of bureaucracy that Murray is proposing.

He said the governing Liberals have stalled economic growth in the north, through high energy prices and failing to invest in infrastructure to develop the Ring of Fire — a chromite deposit that's believed to be one of the largest in the world.

"So much of northern Ontario is still stuck in a deep recession," Hudak said. "This is almost like criminals returning to the scene of the crime."

The leadership hopefuls are trying to win over potential Liberal delegates who will select a new premier at a convention in Toronto Jan. 25-26. Delegates will be selected at meetings across the province the weekend of Jan. 11-12, just two weeks before the convention.

Big party players have thrown their support behind Wynne and former economic development minister Pupatello. Lyn McLeod, the first woman Ontario Liberal leader, has endorsed Wynne, while Pupatello has the backing of cabinet ministers Michael Gravelle and Rick Bartolucci, as well as MPPs Bill Mauro and David Orazietti.

The race was triggered with Premier Dalton McGuinty's surprise announcement Oct. 15 that he would step down and prorogue the legislature, a move that killed planned committee hearings into the costly cancellation of two gas plants, as well as a rare contempt motion against Energy Minister Chris Bentley.

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