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Business Growth: Northern Ontario Chamber Network

Chambers of Commerce across Northern Ontario work to represent the interests of businesses in their communities, advocating for members and addressing unique challenges and opportunities.

Definition of advocacy: public support for or recommendation of a particular cause of policy. Synonyms: support for, backing of, promotion of, championing of… 

Northern Ontario is home to many attractions, businesses, sports teams and, in our opinion, the best place to call home. We are communities that have an immense sense of pride for all that we do, including the businesses that are the backbone of our economy. We are communities that, due to our incredibly large geographic territory, have our own unique challenges and opportunities. Labour shortages, aging demographics, declining populations, infrastructure demands, access to reliable broadband, tariffs on steel and aluminum, and rising energy costs; these are all challenges that Northern communities are currently facing. They can deter new businesses from investing in the North and impact an existing business’ profitability and competitiveness. 

If these challenges that face the North are so diverse and abundant, what do these businesses need to increase their chances of survival? Is there anyone looking out for their best interests? Absolutely, your local Chamber.

Chambers of Commerce have been around for hundreds of years. They are not-for-profit organizations that rely on membership investments to carry out the work that they do. They exist to ensure that business can remain competitive and attractive in every community, while working alongside elected officials, at all levels of government, to keep them at the forefront when policies are introduced. The Chamber network might seem complex, but it is based on a simple idea: if each Chamber represents a membership of business enterprises from their respective communities and are the voice of business in that community, collectively Chambers can join together to form both provincial and federal networks.  We now have a collective voice that represents over 60,000 businesses provincially, and over 200,000 federally, a voice that is impossible to ignore. The more businesses that are a part of this network, the louder and more impactful this voice becomes.  

Let’s take a moment to talk about the what. What do chambers do? This is perhaps the most popular question and can be difficult to understand until you have been taken through the advocacy process, attended an event, or invested in your first exclusive membership discount.   The answer is that chambers have your back. They look out for your best interests when elected officials are introducing/amending/passing policies or legislation. Chambers are your voice of business to ensure that government policies do not restrict competitiveness and/or profitability.  

Chambers provide unique networking opportunities and connect people to ideas, to resources, and to one another. Being a member of a Chamber connects you to the rest of your business community and helps to build your network. With the rise of social media, face-to-face contact is more important than ever. Taking part in events and networking helps you build strong relationships, and these relationships are the heart of any organization.

Entrepreneurs are the backbone of our economy, and most members are small to medium-sized enterprises that often don’t have access to large corporate benefit plans. Attracting and retaining talent is critical and Chambers help you do this by offering exclusive benefits such as the Chambers of Commerce Group Insurance Plan. The Chamber can also help save you money with everyday expenses by enrolling in a myriad of exclusive cost-saving programs such as the Esso discount program.  

Now that you understand what Chambers do, how exactly do they ensure that our communities remain a great place to do business? This is done by working with each local membership on the issues that affect their businesses. Someone once said that you have two ears and one mouth for a reason, and if a Chamber was a person, this would be a great analogy. Listening to what their members are saying is the most important part of their work. To be the voice of business requires innovative ways to listen to a membership that can consist of hundreds of businesses.  

A Chamber’s strength lies within their grassroots initiatives. Here are a few examples of how this works, and why it works so well:

The Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce (SSMCOC) has been advancing issues impacting the steel industry on the national stage.  When the news of U.S. imposed tariffs broke in March, the SSMCOC called on the Prime Minister to get directly involved in the crisis. Shortly thereafter, the SSMCOC joined with its counterparts in Hamilton and Windsor-Essex to issue an open letter to the Prime Minister with eight recommendations aimed at aiding Canada’s steel industry and saving related jobs.  On March 14th, 2018, the Chamber was invited to be at the table when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived in the Sault to discuss concerns around steel tariffs.

The Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce has been advocating on Ontario’s current journeyperson-to-apprenticeship ratios because they have consistently heard from their membership that it makes it difficult for employers to fulfill high levels of demand for skilled tradespeople. Recently, the government announced legislation that will lower these ratios to 1:1 across all trades.  Thunder Bay has been asking for changes to apprenticeship ratios for almost five years and are happy to see the government is listening.

The Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce played a lead role in the deregulation of store hours. Greater Sudbury was one of the only communities in Ontario that continued to have a bylaw dictating the hours of operation for retail businesses. Chamber members continually reported the bylaw inhibited their ability to choose how to operate their enterprises and impacted their competitiveness. After a long advocacy process, this bylaw was finally repealed by city council which gave businesses control over their hours of operation.

The business community is finding it challenging to fill employment positions with appropriate staff. In response, the North Bay & District Chamber of Commerce implemented a skills match program that is starting to take hold in other areas of the province. The program works with social service recipients and matches them to meaningful employment, providing much needed relief to the social service programs and finding employees for our employers. The matching system is geared to job readiness with some additional training dollars for employers to ensure the new employee is provided the appropriate internal operations knowledge when needed.  

The Timmins Chamber of Commerce has been a long-time advocate for improving the provincial and federal environmental assessment process for business. Development projects in Ontario are subject to environmental assessment legislation under both the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Ontario Environmental Assessment Act. The Chamber’s recommendations urge the federal government to make the process more efficient and move towards a “one project-one assessment” approach. A testament to the strength of the Chamber network, the Timmins Chamber and Prince George Chamber of Commerce developed a policy around this issue that was unanimously supported by Canadian Chamber of Commerce delegates at its Annual General Meeting, making it a national issue of importance.

Being a member of your Chamber of Commerce is not only important for the success and prosperity of your own business, but for the community as a whole. Businesses need an organization whose sole purpose is to “have your back,” to protect your business against policies that impact your competitiveness and profitability. That is what a Chamber of Commerce does. 

If you are a member of your local Chamber of Commerce, thank you for being a community builder.

If you are not a member of your Chamber, contact them today to find out how you can become a part of this network, and add your voice to theirs.

Businesses from across Northern Ontario showcase their growth and success in this advertising feature.