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Are we thinking about Northern Ontario all wrong?

As we enter an election year and all three parties start to put together their ‘growth plans’ for the future, this is an ideal time for our leaders to rethink their perceptions of Northern Ontario.
Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO, Northern Policy Institute

About six years ago, the Government of Ontario launched a project trying to design plans for two regional economic development areas (REDAs) for Northern Ontario: one in the northwest and one in the northeast. Not a bad idea. After all, Statistics Canada thinks about us this way. They even helpfully provide data about the economy, workforce, population, health and education levels in these two “economic regions.”

Problem being, those regions are geographically enormous, demographically diverse and not culturally or economically uniform. They even have widely different levels of infrastructure depending on which part of the region you are in. Needless to say, the effort largely floundered on the challenges of bringing such disparate interests together into a single plan (well, two plans).

In the 2011 Growth Plan for Northern Ontario, from which the REDA concept emerged, the focus was on hubs and, in particular, on the “economic and service hubs of the North.” It was highlighted that “more than half of Northerners live in the cities of Greater Sudbury, North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins and Thunder Bay.” The five city regions were seen as the catalyst for growth throughout the North.

The flip side of that population statement is, however, that almost half of Northerners live outside those five centres. Large numbers of people and communities saw themselves excluded from a plan built around the five major cities. Especially in areas like the Kenora and Rainy River Districts, where the majority of economic connections run to the south or west (to the United States or to Winnipeg), not back east to Thunder Bay and the rest of Northern Ontario.

All this said, when thinking about government investment in infrastructure, human capital, and population growth, it is often useful to look at a region as opposed to an agglomeration of disparate and disconnected communities. So, asking how many regions there actually are in Northern Ontario is an important first step in getting government policy right. If there are say, 12 regions, not five, and the government builds service hubs and targets investment to grow those five, then seven will be, by definition, ignored.

In a recent paper commissioned by Northern Policy Institute, we asked an expert to explore the cultural, demographic and economic connections in Northern Ontario and use them to define how many natural economic regions we had. Full disclosure: at least one factor leading to the project was a debate between the author and me about whether or not Kenora truly was an integral part of the economic zone influenced by Thunder Bay. We had been hearing from a great many sources that the evidence did not support that assertion; he demurred. So I invited him to prove them wrong.

Since I am telling the story, you likely already know who turned out to be right. When the dust settled, the author, Dr. Charles Conteh, concluded that there were actually at least 12 unique economic regions in Northern Ontario. The first being the Far North, a special case all unto its own and which, in fact, may subdivide further as more evidence is gathered there. Six are the city regions, with Kenora being added to the list of urban centres listed in the Northern Growth Plan. The final five are “industrial corridors” — Temiskaming Shores, Greenstone-Marathon, Fort Frances, Parry Sound, and Manitoulin Island — that are centred around a collection of relatively smaller, but geographically proximate, communities sharing key similar sectors, assets, and needs.

These findings are absolutely critical to the effectiveness of future government investment and regulation of the economies in the North. Ignoring them risks ignoring the potential growth and comparative advantage to be found in each separate economic region. Communities will lack infrastructure, people will lack opportunities and the government will miss out on needed revenues to defray the costs of services all Ontarians require.

As we enter an election year and all three parties start to put together their “growth plans” for the future, this is an ideal time for our leaders to rethink their perceptions of Northern Ontario. In particular, we collectively need to cast away our assumptions that Northern Ontario is a single, resource-dependent, monolithic economy. We need to plan for what is, not for what we thought there was.