More than 1,000 people gathered on the lawns of Queen's Park Wednesday to protest Ontario's plan to dismantle health-care services in the Niagara region and other small communities.

Critics say health care services will be second rate once a regional health-care agency shuts down emergency rooms in the Niagara-Hamilton area, and scatters services around the region.

That means some residents who lived minutes away from an emergency room might now have to travel at least 30 minutes to get to an ER in Niagara Falls. In the winter, slippery roads will make the travel time even longer.

Many seniors who live in the area say they're afraid their health will be compromised by the reduction of services in their communities.

"It's not the same level of care than an ER would provide and therefore our citizens will not be treated like they should be treated - as first class citizens, not second-class citizens," said another protester.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty told reporters on Wednesday that consolidating services will give people better quality care. He called the decision a difficult one to make but assured it was in the best interest of Ontarians.

"I would also argue that when you get to an emergency room, you want to make sure they have everything they need in terms of the expertise and the technology and all the resources so you don't have to go from one place to the next and that's what this is all about," he said. "It's about ensuring that they have access to the best quality care."

Opposition leaders took the opportunity to slam the move, saying scaling down ER access threatens the safety of Ontarians, especially as the swine flu is spreading in the Greater Toronto Area.

One protester said she lives in a small town near Buffalo, where snow squalls and ice storms often make it impossible for her to travel far.

"We don't want to lose our hospital," said the elderly woman. "We're way down by the Peace Bridge. When it's winter time we can't even get out of our town."

The mayor of Fort Erie also joined the protest and told CTV Toronto that the province's health plan isn't leaving his community with much in the way of health care.

"They're going to take out all the equipment necessary to run an ER and make it an urgent care centre, that's what they're leaving us with," he said. "Urgent care centres are part time so if you show up after 8 p.m. and knock on the doors, it will be closed."

The protest is expected to last for most of Wednesday afternoon. The Ontario Health Coalition says about 50 busloads of people from several communities are taking part in the demonstration.

People are expected to travel from Belleville, Trenton, Windsor, Leamington, Wallaceburg, Sarnia, Strathroy, Cambridge, Hamilton, St. Catharines, Welland, Port Colborne and Fort Erie.

With a report from CTV Toronto's Paul Bliss