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Northern Ontario: truly hidden treasures

Eight, double zero, five, six, five, seven, four, two, one. That’s eight, double zero, five, six, five, seven, four, two, one. Since the 1970s, that ditty has been bouncing around in my head.
Charles Cirtwill is President and CEO of Northern Policy Institute, an independent social and economic think-tank based here in Northern Ontario.

Eight, double zero, five, six, five, seven, four, two, one. That’s eight, double zero, five, six, five, seven, four, two, one. Since the 1970s, that ditty has been bouncing around in my head. Sung to a catchy beat in the unmistakable tones of Stompin’ Tom Connors. It was then (and still is today) the phone number to call for Prince Edward Island tourist information. Go ahead, try it. You know you want to.

This campaign, almost 50 years along, is still to me the epitome of effective tourism marketing: clear, concise and constant. Now, I realize that not every province or region is going to be blessed with a talent as singular as Stompin’ Tom, so let’s discuss today, something a little bit more mundane: signage.

Everyone can have signs. Good signs. Useful signs. Informative and simple to understand signs. Predictable, consistent, regularly spaced, and useful signs. Northern Ontario doesn’t.

Believe me, I would like to sugarcoat this. I would like to hold up the examples showing we know how to tell people where they are, what cool things they can find nearby, and where they might be able to get gas, food, accommodations or other creature comforts. But, with some remarkable-for-their-isolation examples, we do not.

In the last three and a half years I have been on every major and almost every secondary highway in Northern Ontario (northeast and northwest) and a lot of roads smaller than that (including the Caramat Road — wheee). I have seen one, count it, one “distance to next gas” sign. It is just outside of Timmins heading towards Sudbury.

Our “distance to community x” signs are only slightly more frequent. Get much beyond Thunder Bay or Sudbury, however, and they shrink to postage stamp size. Signs showing what services are available at the next exit? Rare. Signs indicating the hours of operation of gas stations or tourism centres? Oh, please. Public signage for tourist attractions, museums and other services or attractions? Don’t get me started.

All of the signs I have listed are available in standard formats and used routinely elsewhere. On a recent road trip from Thunder Bay, Ont., to Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and back, I checked. Nova Scotia has them, P.E.I. has them, New Brunswick has them, Quebec has them, southern Ontario has them, heck even the Parry Sound region has them.

Quebec’s signs are particularly good. Not only are 24-hour gas stations and restaurants marked on standard highway signage, the distance to the next gas is regularly provided just before the exit to this gas station. You can decide in an informed way whether to risk it.

From here to the Atlantic Ocean, public road side signage highlights names and in some cases hours of operation of museums (public and private), stores, attractions, and every brand of restaurant. Mom and pops as well as major chains.

Visitors know where things are, what might be off the beaten path, and how far off the beaten path it might be. That’s right, at some exits not only are directional arrows provided to the banking machine, the washroom, or Joe’s Pizzeria but distance as well. If the gas station is five klicks away, head ’er! Fifty klicks? Back onto the highway you go.

Now, I thought perhaps it was Ontario. Perhaps we have a dislike for the clutter of highway signs. Note, however, my earlier comments about Parry Sound and southern Ontario.

Then I thought perhaps it was highway type. But, no. Those Parry Sound signs? The ones with almost as much detail, consistency and clarity as in the Maritimes? Those signs are on twinned and un-twinned highways; feeder and arterial roads alike.

I realize signs cost money. I also realize that in the examples I have cited provincial governments have in some cases shared the costs with private firms or local municipalities. But again, we can do creative finance too.

So the next time a local mayor asks me why no one comes into their town to see the amazing attractions and services they have to offer, my response will be to ask whether anyone bothered to tell passersby what is available. Then see where the discussion goes from there.