The Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) had a special MEETING the other day IN TIMMINS to consider the state of the North.
It was called the Northern Leaders’ Summit
On the one hand, it was AN historical EVENT ORGANIZED BY A VERY CAUTIOUS organization, which underscores the general unhappiness across the North about the future of economy.
On the other hand, it was a pretty predictable affair that featured many of the usual suspects, including myself, saying many of the same things we have been saying for years. It also featured many of the usual suspects who never show up to these meetings, namely, Ministers of the Crown, both provincial and federal, who did the political math and took a pass. The missing dignitaries was an obvious snub to the North, but for the first time in my memory no one really seemed to care. There is a general recognition the senior levels of government are not engaged or invested politically in the problems of the North.
The hero of the piece is Mac Bain a, municipal councilor from North Bay, who is also vice chair of FONOM. He spent a great deal of time organizing and planning the event and deserves a lot of credit. It is a thankless task to herd northern cats and there was a good turnout of politicians from across the region.
If he’d asked me before the fact whether he should do it or not, I would have recommended not to. The problem with these gatherings is that if you haven’t done your homework, you pretty quickly descend into time worn clichés, platitudes and gratuitous fist shaking. There is a lot to shake fists about, but no point if you don’t have a plan. We’ll see what they come up with.
As I said in my speech, I think it will be a waste of time if they don’t do at least three basic things;
“1) Set up a Northern Ontario Regional Government Secretariat to begin the process of recommending to the senior levels of government how to realign responsibilities to create a sustainable economy in Northern Ontario. Don’t ask FedNor or the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. to underwrite the exercise. The minute you ask someone else to either do your thinking or fund your thinking you have lost the initiative. You are second tier players.
I suggest a $500,000 annual budget assessed on the basis of population to each major city in the North to fund research and strategic planning required to make choices. Smaller communities should have representation, but not be asked to contribute money. The money would fund the work that needs to be done to put solutions on the province’s desk. There is no point whining unless you have a well-researched plan to recommend.
2) Request both the provincial and federal government to provide a comprehensive audit of what they do, what they spend and what they collect in Northern Ontario. I doubt they collect more than they spend, but it would be interesting to find out. Most importantly, it would allow us to begin to think about how and where to redirect funding and responsibility so we get aligned and productive.
3) Set up an annual political assembly (not necessarily all that different from the meeting today) to meet at the same time each year to assess progress on the road to sustainability. It would bring together Northern MPs and MPPs, whatever their party affiliation, members of FONOM, and hopefully more and more members of the academic, business, Aboriginal and labour communities each year. The problem we need to address is that we have set no economic goals as a region, and we have no mechanism to measure our success, even if we had goals. An annual meeting focuses the mind. Instead of measuring the wait times for knee surgery, we need to measure economic growth in the value-added part of our economy. The assembly needs to record and measure specific initiatives on driving to sustainability. Sharing best practices is a powerful way to build support and esprit de corps.”
We have to learn something in Northern Ontario. It is not enough to get mad and it is not enough to be passionate and it is not enough to nod our heads in agreement. Sooner or later we have to be smart and we have to be prepared to take risks. So far, at least politically, we don’t have the right stuff.
P.S. If you suffer insomnia and need a way to get to sleep read my speech, which is posted at www.rethinkingnorthernontario.org
Laurentian Media Group