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Northern Ontario: between a rock and a hedge

A few weeks ago, the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines and the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure held an economic conference in Thunder Bay called the ThinkNorth Summit.

A few weeks ago, the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines and the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure held an economic conference in Thunder Bay called the ThinkNorth Summit.

It was part of the provinces effort to develop a regional economic development strategy for Northern Ontario emanating from a new piece of legislation called the Places to Grow Act which was struck in 2005.

Needless to say, an economic conference is not a new idea in Northern Ontario. It is more like a secondary industry, second only to the middle class welfare of the Aboriginal economic development industry. Generally, these gatherings involve people who work for one government or another.

Attendees therefore, almost always have a vested interest in senior government funding of one kind or another and therefore, remain well behaved no matter the provocation or desperate circumstance of their communities.

If it is a federal undertaking the municipalities and provincial luminaries come to observe. If it is a provincial gathering the municipalities and the feds come to mingle and if it is a municipal enterprise the province and the feds come and bring greetings although usually one or the other of the observers is paying the bill.

Last year, the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities held an economic development conference in Timmins called the Northern Leaders Economic Summit to talk about, well...economic development. The best speaker last year, a fellow named Michael Gallis came back and gave the same presentation this year. I found it interesting twice. I swore the Timmins meeting would be my last such meeting, but there I was, back at it again in Thunder Bay. I should have opened by saying my name is Michael Atkins and I am a Northern ecoholic. I’ve been doing business in Northern Ontario for 35 years. I am a fixture in these sorts of arenas and like many others, I keep saying the same sorts of things without much effect.

There will be no serious change in our prospects until there is a change in governance.

There will be no change in our prospects until we have the intellectual capital in Northern Ontario to suggest and implement creative policy responses to chronic problems in energy, education, immigration, natural resources and taxation.

We care too much and know too little. Most importantly, we don’t have the courage of our conviction. We have the courage of tepid and safe critique.
To be fair, this provincial effort has more promise than any other initiative taken up in the last quarter century.

The reason is that the province has figured out that Ontario is made up of many regional economies that have different economic drivers. This effort involves more than 15 ministries sharing staff, ideas and information. The speakers they brought to the conference were thoughtful and in many cases visionary. This contrasted with the odd mandate of the conference itself which seemed to be primarily social. It neither reported on plans nor asked for much input.

What is more interesting is that the Liberal government made commitments. Four ministers attended and spoke. They said they will have a plan this spring. It will be significant. It will have resources behind it.

This is not like the Liberals. They usually leave more political wiggle room and the meeting was full of municipal officials on their knees who won’t soon forget the speeches.

Importantly, Deputy Premier George Smitherman was on site and accounted for. At the end of the day, he will decide how much change will be endured and how much money will be spent against the disaster of our resource economy.

Here are some things to watch for.

A) If the province allows AbitibiBowater, which is now an American company dominated by a hedge fund from California to sell its hydro assets, the province has thrown in the towel, no matter what they say.

B) If they don’t attack the governance issue in a meaningful way, any new policies, however enlightened, will not survive the next government, which is the way it has always been.

C) Our problem is not infrastructure capital so much as it is Intellectual Capital for Northern Ontario.

This report will be telling and important.

Michael Atkins
President Laurentian Media Group