By Robert Tuomi
(BELLE RIVER, ON) – Belle River, a community in Lakeshore, has lost a publicly run Service Ontario centre and wants it back. Before being closed, the privately run office provided a range of government services including drivers and vehicle license renewals.
The closure promoted the Ontario Public Service Employees Union to accuse Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne of not supporting the community.
“It’s more proof that rural Ontarians are being left behind by Kathleen Wynne. Small communities deserve the same access to public services as larger centres,” said OPSEU president Warren Smokey Thomas. “Public services shouldn’t depend on whether private owners feel like delivering them.”
Town officials, including mayor Tom Bain and its Business Improvement Association, says Thomas, have been unable to find a replacement operator. Because of the closure, local residents will now have to drive up to half an hour or more to Essex, Windsor, Tilbury, or Leamington to get their driver’s license, health-card, and other government documents.
“The government needs to staff and run the Belle River Service Ontario office so the community can have reliable public services and good local jobs,” said Thomas. “This is what holds communities together.”
Mickey Riccardi, president of OPSEU local 154, which represents public service employees in the region, recalled what happened when the Belle River centre changed private owners in 2013 and moved to a larger location.
“At that time, the government sent in Service Ontario employees who staffed the counter for well over a year during the transition,” said Riccardi. “Public service employees have the most knowledge and experience to run Service Ontario offices in Belle River, and everywhere else in Ontario.”
Closures of Service Ontario offices are not isolated to Belle River. OPSEU suspects centres in small and rural communities around the province are under threat of closure and reduced hours.
The union points to the northern Ontario communities of Ignace and Atikokan, which have had their Service Ontario office hours cut drastically. Last spring, the government threatened to close nine Service Ontario centres across the province. After a grassroots protest by concerned citizens, it put its plans on hold and kept them open.
OPSEU is also against private companies operating the centres. “Only the public should own Service Ontario,” said Thomas. “When we own it, we run it right.”