Published on: 10/15/2012 11:17:45 AM Print | Font Sizes:  Normal Text Large Text

A small step forward for the North


By: Michael Atkins

I have been recommending the establishment of something like a Northern Policy Institute (NPI) since I was a little boy in short pants. One of the extraordinary gaps in Northern Ontario has been the inability to think constructively and intelligently about its condition.

I have always thought the institution should be funded by Northern institutions such as the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM), individual towns and cities, our universities, labour organizations, First Nations groups and interested and relatively selfless private sector supporters.

The reason is simple. He who pays the shot determines the outcome. Northern Ontario has many structural and systemic problems. Many of these problems have to do with governance (i.e. taxation, resource policy, expenditure priorities, environmental laws, energy strategy, the general disconnect and dysfunction between federal and provincial initiative in the area, etc.). It is unlikely, although to be fair, not impossible, that a provincially funded research council will be contemplating research projects that promise to get it into the murky waters of challenging the status quo.

Another reason to pay the bill ourselves in Northern Ontario is that for the most part our institutions endure but provincial governments change and with them policies and priorities. The institute could be gone in a New York minute like, say, the Smart Cities initiative with a change in political leadership.

Finally, the country is not progressing. We are falling back in competitiveness, job creation, wealth generation and innovation. Northern Ontario can lead the province and the country with innovative regional strategies. It isn’t that hard in this country.

That said, I’m pleased the provincial government has kept its promise to proceed with the Northern Policy Institute. If FONOM or others thought the idea important they could have done it years ago, as could the rest of the organizations I mentioned. The truth is it would never have happened without the province's leadership. The resources are limited to be sure ($1 million a year for five years), about the equivalent of redoing a couple of sidewalks a year, but it is a beginning.

Ministers Rick Bartolucci and Michael Gravelle deserve credit for seeing this through during extremely tight spending times. It was wise to involve the presidents of Laurentian and Lakehead Universities to spearhead startup and oversight. It is important to separate this institution from government influence and the risk-averse government ministries that are locked into their own view of the world and operational imperatives. Governments massage virtually all information they produce for their benefit. Research must be independent to be useful or it will bring no real benefit.

We live in absurd times. Last week the treasurer for Alberta warned that his province could experience up to a $3-billion deficit because the price of oil was down. The stupidity of trying to run a government on commodity prices blows the mind in this day and age. That province has been through ups and downs for years and you would have thought they might have learned a lesson or two. They have not. They think they are smart because they are rich.

They will not be rich for long and neither will we (Ring of Fire or not) if we do not find the resolve to be focused on sustainability and not just exploitation and profitability.

Hope springs eternal. The first act of maturity for any political or economic entity is to commit to accountability. Thoughtful accountability. This is a first step.

Here is what NPI said of its mandate: "To develop and promote proactive, evidence-based and purpose-driven policy options that deepen understanding about the unique challenges and opportunities of Northern Ontario and advance the sustainable development and long-term economic prosperity of Northern Ontario.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Here is the litmus test. This adventure will be overseen by the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. If this tiny investment in critical thinking doesn’t make them nervous it will be a failure.We’ll see.

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