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Toward a Region of Northern Ontario Act - Michael Atkins (06/05)

One of the things I like about this new provincial government is that in spite of some of the obvious missteps in the first couple of years, they seem prepared to take some risk and make some change.

One of the things I like about this new provincial government is that in spite of some of the obvious missteps in the first couple of years, they seem prepared to take some risk and make some change.

Michael Atkins
You see this willingness in their energy policy (ouch but unavoidable), their health care initiatives, their green belt strategy around Toronto, their fixed election bill, and very importantly you see it in their willingness to understand the unique needs of the City of Toronto. They are about to give Toronto new taxing powers and responsibilities.

This willingness to be thoughtful and creative, I think, is critically important to Northern Ontario.

Something struck me a few weeks ago as I was preparing a speech for the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities in Parry Sound.

My usual focus is to talk about how Northern Ontario municipalities must reinvent themselves as city-states; about how communities need an immigration policy, a telecommunications strategy, an intellectual capital strategy and a culture of enterprise and trust so as to focus on the co operative creation of wealth.

I read a document prepared by the Northern Ontario Large Urban Mayors work group called “Creating our Future.”

It is a shopping list that includes, among other things, calls for investment in hospitals, telecommunications, roads, water and sewers. It touches on the impossibility of provincial downloading, the need to invest in centres of excellence at our two universities and the importance of addressing educational opportunity gaps.

It is at the same time unremarkable and revolutionary.

These Mayors are together because they have no choice. They know that trend is destiny and if we don’t work together to reinvent our economic space, we will continue to lose population and tax base.

The weakness of the report is the weakness of our circumstance.

The Mayors have made a to-do list involving work for 15 or 20 ministries, both federal and provincial.

The report could have been written 25 years ago.

What screams off the page is that these mayors have no authority to doanything of consequence to build sustainable communities. They have the power to make recommendations. What hasn’t changed in 25 years is how we are organized and what we have is not working for us.

We need what Toronto is about to get, which is an updated City of Toronto Act.

We need a “Region of Northern Ontario Act.”

We need a new regional government for Northern Ontario.

It would elect a mayor or chair, two councillors from each urban area and three or four councillors at large. It would take responsibility for the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. Federal funding activity would be co coordinated through this level of government. It would assume a portion of the tourism ministry and enter into management relationships with a host of other Ministries and departments. It would trade grants for tax points.

In short, this new authority would be aligned to succeed. It would be focused.

But Michael, another level of government!? Have you lost your mind!?

No! The message is that Northern Ontario, based on resources as it is, is born to die. If you don’t want to die you have to get in the game. You have to take charge of your circumstances, imagine your opportunities and set about organizing to create sustainable wealth. This is extraordinarily difficult to do in today’s political framework.

We have extracted the wealth and many of us have lived the good life these resources provide. We are leaving nothing for our grandchildren. We are failing miserably to deal with the root causes of our problems.

Our best and brightest are voting with their feet.

Why not try being accountable?

I think this particular provincial government might consider a realignment of responsibilities.

It is doing so with the city of Toronto and there is no reason why they wouldn’t consider change in Northern Ontario if it made sense.

The large urban mayors and their smaller market colleagues should think about it. Who else will speak for Northern Ontario?

Michael Atkins is the president of Northern Ontario Business. He can be reached