There is no mistaking Al Spacek for anything other than a true Northerner. The current mayor of Kapuskasing, and president of the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM), has always been a champion of the region.
“Supporting causes (of the North) has been an interest of mine for a long time at different levels,” he said. “I am born and raised as a Northerner and I certainly have a passion for it.”
He prefers teamwork to get things done, as opposed to being a one-man crusade.
“The first message I got out to council when I was first elected is that my style is a team effort and always needs to be,” said Spacek. “I have operated with that philosophy throughout, whatever activity I have been involved in.”
He is in his second term as mayor, and has also served as a school board trustee. He has sat on the board for the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. and the Cochrane District Social Services Administration Board, and has been involved with other local and regional organizations. He also ran for the Progressive Conservatives in the last provincial election for the riding of Timmins-James Bay.
Spacek has always been incensed by the amount of policy, legislation and direction that comes from Queen's Park that has no consideration for how it will impact Northerners.
“I have a real hard time understanding that and what makes it more frustrating, some of that policy and legislation is being heavily influenced by special interest groups in southern Ontario, like environmentalists,” he said.
He takes exception to that attitude, since he strongly believes that Northerners are responsible, and experienced stewards of the land, since they have been mining and harvesting the forest for generations.
“If you talk to anyone in those industries, no one is more aware than those stakeholders and the communities where they operate,” Spacek said.
In his current role with FONOM, one of the primary roles is to lobby on behalf of Northeastern Ontario. He has found that working with other similar groups across the region has made the North more unified, which makes them all more effective when dealing with the government.
“What continues to drive me is that we seem to have small wins along the way, but at the end of the day, this pattern of the government knowing what is best for us continues,” he said.
In dealing with First Nations, he finds they have similar challenges when dealing with senior levels of government.
“Government just doesn't seem to understand our culture and way of life.”
Spacek said when growing up in Kapuskasing, he remembers the town had a population of 50 per cent more of what is currently there. While the economy and technology has reduced the number of employees in the resource industry, obstacles placed by the government don't help.
“I sense similar sentiments and feelings with my colleagues across the North. As president of FONOM, I get to travel across the North and there is that consistent message when meeting with other stakeholders and politicians,” Spacek said.
The solution is to get the provincial government to realize Northerners can, and do, play an increasingly important role. Equally important is selling that message to the south and influence voters in that region.
“I think we have made great strides and closer collaborations,” he said. “We have a long way to go but we have accomplished much.”
He was involved in lobbying the provincial government to reverse its decision to make nine Northern provincial parks go from overnight camping designation to day use. He was involved in the fight to stop the government's decision to sell off the business divisions of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission.
As mayor, he sees a closer working relationship developing amongst the other municipalities. They are lobbying together, undertaking economic development initiatives, and working on strategies that will benefit the whole area.
“We are doing more with less and that is the way of the future, working together,” Spacek said. “Northern Ontario used to be fiercely territorial and we were protective of our kingdoms but that is not the case today.”
Politics will remain a part of his life and he hasn't ruled out any future possibilities about where that might take him.
“For now, I am focused on my community and Northern Ontario. It's a changing landscape and we need to be very careful.”