We are in an odd position in Ontario. The current government is nominally in charge but has no authority to do anything. There is a lame-duck premier and no parliament.
Cabinet ministers are leaving to run for the leadership while others are staying in place but not running again and have no interest in starting anything new other than a job search. There is a massive debt, striking teachers and, 10 minutes after the next premier presents his or her budget, there will be a no-confidence motion and an election to follow. The lights are on but nobody is home.
Given some of the incomprehensible decisions (key words: Ornge and power generation) made while this government was in full possession of its faculties, this actually might be an improvement.
At any rate, with chaos there can be opportunity. Of course, sometimes there is just chaos when there is chaos.
Strategies and policies are being considered by leadership candidates, opposition leaders and MPPs planning to run again. Their minds are open to new ideas briefly as the old power relations wither. For a brief time political people will be contemplating fresh air before the pollsters prescribe political direction and the new princes start selling their wares.
There is the slight whiff, of a miniscule trace, of the beginning of a look at Northern Ontario as a separate place. I am referring of course to the Northern Ontario Growth Plan. Heretofore it has been meetings after meetings and talk, talk, talk and very, very, very little action.
That said, it is the seed of a different way of looking at things and small crumbs are what are available. A recent newsletter from the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines actually focused on a segment of economic activity (agriculture and food). I know, I know. I’ve lost my mind. I have no life. I knowingly opened a mass email from the government of Ontario entitled “Latest News on the Growth Plan for Northern Ontario.” The point is that rudimentary as it is (their form of BIG DATA is a transportation map outlining traffic across the Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge), it indicates the ministry is thinking about economic sectors in Northern Ontario strategically.
Having watched the ineptitude of governance in Northern Ontario for well more than a generation it could be I’m grasping at straws. Well, of course I’m grasping at straws. It could be the public policy equivalence of the Stockholm syndrome and I readily admit it.
What I do know is that if the notion of the Northern Growth Strategy doesn’t survive the next power turn it will be more than a great loss. It is potentially disastrous.
Why? Because Northern Ontario is essentially reactive, not proactive. Mines close or open all at once, depending on commodity prices; or paper goes out of fashion and nobody thought it would happen; or forest fires rage; or the Americans close their markets when they feel like it; or the Canadian dollar goes on a ride; or all the major companies are bought up by foreigners and lose their local DNA; or people who don’t have to open their door and greet a bear in the face change legislation.
It is out of control and destabilizing. It breeds a culture of dependency.
The Growth Plan, for all its warts—and it has been like watching paint dry—is proactive.
Northern Ontario should not be entirely defocused on specific battles (i.e. Ontario Northland or parks, etc.). It needs to be focused on being taken seriously. Planning ahead, thinking strategically, having access to data, making ministries accountable for overall strategies.
These are the conversations that need to happen now. In two months it will be too late. The power vacuum will be filled.
That means that normally passive-aggressive Northern institutions like the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities and the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association, and chambers of commerce, and institutional leaders (from churches to science centres) need to settle on something simple like being treated like grownups. That means leaving your politics at the door and gathering around the Growth Plan as the only proactive process in sight which needs to be enhanced, emboldened and actually brought to life. It doesn’t matter which party does it. This means before Northern Conservatives, Liberals and NDPers go to war they need to agree on this.
If we don’t, we’ll get what we deserve, which is nothing.