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Leaders Forum with MP Alex Ruff and MPP Rick Byers

The Leaders’ Forum: What to Expect for 2024?

Last updated: Jan 26, 2024

The Owen Sound District Chamber of Commerce hosted a well-attended Leaders’ Forum at Stone Tree Golf and Fitness on January 26, 2024. Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MP Alex Ruff and MPP Rick Byers shared information and commentary on What to Expect for 2024 locally, provincially and nationally with lively audience interaction. Owen Sound Mayor Ian Boddy also participated in the Forum, which was facilitated by Jason Hemstock, the Chamber’s Board Chair.

Asked about national prospects for 2024 Ruff noted that as the Official Opposition his Conservative caucus cannot set the federal policy agenda directly. But they will continue to hold the minority government accountable until an election is called later this year or in 2025. Whether in opposition or perhaps soon in government his top personal priority will continue to be representing his constituents. Urgent current local issues that Ruff is focused on include insufficient affordable housing, shortage of skilled trades people and ensuring continued economic growth opportunities for the agri-food sector.

As a member of Ontario’s governing PC party, and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance, Byers contributes directly to the Province’s policy and program initiatives. In so doing he observed that “this is the most challenging time families, businesses and governments have encountered in many decades”. The long list of challenges include those in healthcare, housing, and the economy, among many others. 2024 will see accelerated investments by the Ford government in critical areas such as adding to infrastructure and augmenting the number of frontline doctors and nurses.

While responding to questions from Hemstock and the audience both Ruff and Byers emphasized the importance of collaboration among different orders of government, the private sector and not-for-profits. A highlight in this regard was the presence and participation of Andrew Stuart, President & CEO of Owen Sound-based Hydrogen Optimized Inc HOI). which is at the international forefront in developing and commercializing large-scale, emission-free, green hydrogen production systems targeted to high-growth markets. Mr. Stuart said that his company’s growing success is the direct result of significant collaboration with the federal and Ontario governments and with Georgian College which has been HOI’s source of well-trained scientists and technicians, many of whom are newcomers to Canada.

Building on the linked themes of collaborative approaches to clean energy and local economic development, Jessica Linthorne, Chief Operating Officer of the Nuclear Innovation Institute, praised Bruce nuclear which for more than 35 years has been a reliable source of cobalt-60 which sterilizes 40% of the world’s single-use medical devices. As much has been achieved so far, the window is still open in 2024 and beyond for significant future local isotope-related economic growth. Linthorne thanked

Byers for introducing a Private Members’ Bill in support of medical isotopes. It passed with unanimous support in October 2033.

In response to a query about the federal court’s reversal of the use by the federal government of the Emergencies Act to stop the 2022 Ottawa truck occupation, Ruff said that he did not in any way condone the truckers’ action. He stated that the Prime Minister should have taken a more collaborative approach rather than acting unilaterally.

Byers was asked about the continuing shortage of Long Term Care beds across Ontario, especially in Bruce and Grey Counties. He re-iterated that this is one of the many challenges that we are facing as a province. The government is committed to adding or upgrading about 60,000 beds across Ontario but “it will take time”. Beyond improving the number and quality of LTC beds he said that there is the additional challenge of providing more nurses and PSWs to deliver care to their occupants, especially when LTCs are in competition with hospitals and home care agencies for these professionals.

On a related topic, Ruff noted the federal government has just allocated $40 million for an In-Home-Support pilot project as part of its Age Well at Home initiative. Regrettably none of that funding was directed to Bruce or Grey Counties.

Jill Umbach, Co-ordinator of the Bruce Grey Poverty Task Force explained that that the United Way and other not-for-profits are struggling with pressure downloaded from governments related to food and affordable housing insecurity. “There’s more demand and less dollars”, she said. Byers acknowledged this situation and said that in 2024 the Ontario government will be addressing this challenge with new or augmented program initiatives. Ruff added that the federal government’s ban on foreign home-buying was a big city measure with no applicability or impact in solving the affordable housing crisis in Bruce Grey.

Sarah Cowley, CEO of the YMCA Owen Sound Grey Bruce said that YMCA child-care programs represent one-fifth of all licensed spots in Ontario, and while her not-for-profit organization is a big supporter of the intent of the $10-a-day program, the way it is currently being funded is not sustainable. “That’s very unfortunate because child-care is an important economic driver”.

Ruff said that the federal government’s role in the nationwide daycare program is badly structured and funded. “It’s a poor attempt at dealing with a real problem”. He suggested that income testing would help government funding be more effective for those most in need. He then thanked the YMCA, the United Way and other community organizations for their caring support of those in need; and added that both Byers and he participate regularly in fund raising initiatives to help fill the gap.

An audience member asked Byers his views on the recent decision of Grey County to cut $438,000 from its 2024 community transportation budget. He replied that especially as a former Board member of Metrolinx he knows that public transit is essential for local economic development. He praised the Grey Transit Route’s one-way $5 adult fare between Owen Sound and Orangeville as a positive initiative. But he added that there are many competing funding needs and it’s hard for the Ontario government and Grey County to find the balance in this and many other challenging areas.

It's the Chamber’s happy conclusion that this 2024 Leaders Forum was particularly successful - perhaps our best ever! There was lively, informed dialogue among Byers, Ruff, Hemstock and leaders from the private and not-for-profit sectors. All appeared to agree that there are many daunting challenges ahead in 2024 and that collaboration is a valuable tool in addressing these challenges head-on and in seeking to find the best possible policy balance.


Alex Ruff grew up on a farm just outside Tara in Bruce County. He is a retired Canadian Army Colonel with over 25 years of military service, much in active duty. A member of the Conservative Pary of Canada, Alex was first elected as MP for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in 2019 and re-elected in 2021.

Rick Byers was elected to his first term as Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP in 2022. He is Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance of the governing Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. Prior to his election, Rick had a 32 year career in infrastructure investment, public sector investment banking, government and accounting. He and his wife Margot have lived in Grey Highlands for over a decade.

Ian Boddy was born and raised in Owen Sound. He is a graduate of the University of Alberta and of Western University’s Faculty of Law; and was called to the Bar in 1993. Ian was elected to Owen Sound City Council in 2010, and as Mayor in 2014, a position he has held ever since.

Jason Hemstock is the current Chair of the OSDCC, a position he took over from now Past Chair Marg Benedict. Jason is the General Manager of the Best Western Inn on the Bay in Owen Sound. Like Alex Ruff he is a Tara native and still calls that small community home. Jason has a Business Diploma from Georgian College.

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