Published on: 11/1/2012 2:50:25 PM Print | Font Sizes:  Normal Text Large Text

Responding to the age of austerity

By: Michael Atkins

Michael Atkins, President, Northern Ontario Business,
Michael Atkins, President, Northern Ontario Business,

The province of Ontario is broke.

The Canadian government, while certainly not broke, is cutting back substantially on program spending. It wants less government for financial and ideological reasons.

Northern Ontario is going to get hammered. It has already begun. It is a lot easier to spend more than spend less. It hurts. Funding announce

ments usually get made three or four times. Try and get information when things are being closed.

Small things make a big difference up here. Everything matters. The first rounds from the province are not encouraging. They appear devoid of consultation. The Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC) closure, divestiture, call it what you will, is not transparent and not collaborative. No one knows anything, as of this writing, except that the last passenger train has run its course. Twenty- four hours before the last ONTC train left the station, the province announced it would close 10 parks, nine of them in northeastern Ontario. Incredible. They didn’t talk to anyone about it, including most of their own staff, who were blindsided by it. It seemed purposely insulting. The savings were picayune and hardly worth talking about when compared to the tens of millions flushed down the drain to move power plants around in southern Ontario for no obvious public purpose.

The only institutions in Northern Ontario that have any capacity to respond, protect, fight back, reason or otherwise propose solutions for Northerners, are the municipalities. Everyone else is dependent on the provincial or the federal government for something and they will be keeping their mouths shut. The opposition MPs and MPPs will, of course, raise hell but they have no currency with the government and are ignored.

I can only imagine Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli must be knawing his hands off his arm about the ONTC. His party’s response to the ONTC included the usual exclamations of outrage but in practical terms was tepid. The Tories hold a balance of power on this issue but have not offered it up. If they wanted to save it, they could. Vic is an activist, a doer. He must rue the day he moved from mayor of North Bay where he could do much, to Opposition where he can do little. Of course, if the Tories win, he will be the next minister of northern development and mines but probably too late for the ONTC. My guess is the Tories prefer the Liberals wear this one before they have to do anything. If Vic was mayor, he would find someone to buy it or do it himself.

We are not at our strongest in Northern Ontario these days. We have rookie Mayors in four of our five major cities and they don’t work together the way it used to be. These things come in ebbs and flows and we are currently on an ebb.

I don’t believe in less government in Northern Ontario. I believe in activist government in Northern Ontario. There is no other way to survive. Senior governments come and go, as does business. Municipalities endure.

There is one jurisdiction in Northern Ontario where this tradition of activism is still alive: Kapuskasing. Al Spacek, mayor since 2007 and provincial Tory candidate in the last election, defies his Tory credentials with a bias for action and risk, not ideology.

He’s put Kapuskasing in the solar energy business. A while back someone couldn’t pay their taxes on a subdivision so the town put solar panels on the vacant lots and anywhere else in the city it could find and started selling energy to Ontario Hydro on the provincial Feed-in tariff plan. They make a $100,000 a year. A one per cent rise in the tax base is $80,000. He is currently negotiating to help other jurisdictions do the same thing. They have submitted 22 projects in partnership with eight municipalities from northeastern Ontario.

The federal government is closing down the Beef Research Farm in Kapuskasing. Al got them to delay the closing until March to give him time to put together a group of stakeholders and he is going to buy the thing and run it.

This is the same spirit that led North Bay to take over the Canadian Forces base when 414 Squadron was moved from North Bay years ago. It is the same spirit that led former Kapuskasing Mayor René Piché to lead a delegation to camp on Queen's Park until he saved Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company from being closed.

The cuts are coming. The only line of defence is creative, activist and fearless municipal leadership. Without it, it will be the usual.  

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