Last month, I had the pleasure of addressing the annual meeting of the Northeastern Ontario Chambers of Commerce. I use the term “annual” advisedly, as I am told the last annual general meeting was some 14 years ago. No one seemed to know where the NOCC had been or why it had died. What is safe to say is that no one had much missed it until recently.
In any event, a group of business people has decided to revive it. If their first meeting is any indication, they may make some waves. Among others, they heard from provincial ministers David Ramsey (Minister of Natural Resources) and Rick Bartolucci (Minister of Northern Development and Mines) and federally from Joe Comuzzi the Minister for FedNor. In effect they had the ministers’ ears before they have had anything to say. Good politics.
Chambers can be really, really good or really, really bad. At their worst, chambers are self-satisfied knee-jerk organizations that deploy rapid-fire clichés with stifling predictability and modest results. At their best, they can seize the moment and involve their members in community building that changes the course of history of a political jurisdiction.
There is no doubt northeastern Ontario needs some help. The last 10 or 15 years have been economically disastrous. The population has plummeted, municipalities have been under assault, young people have departed, the population has been aging, business and government have been consolidating (a game northerners never win), and, until the recent rise in commodity prices, there has been little hope all round.
It is a good time for some new blood!
The next six months will tell the tale.
The NOCC will either tackle some of the systemic inadequacies that weaken us, or they will be content to rearrange the deck chairs. They have a choice. They can play it safe, which is the tradition, or they can take risks and try to interrupt the continued decline of the economy and its capacity to respond to universal trends.
The group doesn’t lack a potential dance partner.
The mayors of Northern Ontario are beginning to think strategically. They are beginning to think about education, immigration and taxation policies together.
Haltingly, it is dawning on our leaders that our biggest issue is that we have little control over our environment. Even if we wanted to impact on something like the education of our young people in the North we have no tools to do so. The real issue is that we are a colony. We think like colonials and act like colonials. Colonies send their resources to the mother country and take what they get back gratefully. We don’t believe it is our role to think, to plan, and to trade effectively and profitably with the world. We think it is our role to pave roads and dig sewers and pay taxes.
Well, not always.
Perhaps the most important and surprising development in the last five years was the establishment of the Northern Ontario Medical School in Sudbury and Thunder Bay. It was shocking, really. A common-sense solution to the difficult and critical problem of bringing doctors to Northern Ontario. For this one decision, Mike Harris deserves all the credit in the world.
Another bright spot is NORCAT, the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology. Another is the much-rumoured Centre of Mining Excellence at Laurentian University, which is beginning to take shape. These types of institutions are true building blocks for tomorrow’s economy.
A society cannot take responsibility for itself if it does not have the capacity to consider its circumstance thoughtfully and methodically. The Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, which still has the potential to be useful, needs to rethink its mandate. The development side of the ministry is missing in action. It will not change until there is a consensus in Northern Ontario about what it should be doing. That consensus needs to be led by business people.
The time is now. The NOCC can make a stunning impact on the future of Northern Ontario by being focused on important issues of capacity and less enamoured with the operating issues of the day.
We’ll see what they do.
Michael Atkins is president of Northern Ontario Business. He can be reached by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org