Business needs to efficiently move people, goods and information. Improving infrastructure supports business. On Nov. 9, I had the opportunity to make a presentation in Thunder Bay to Minister of Infrastructure Bob Chiarelli; Minister of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry Michael Gravelle; and Thunder Bay-Atikokan MPP Bill Mauro regarding the development of a 10-year infrastructure plan for the province of Ontario.
I was pleased to have the opportunity, but as one of the few presenters that were not a current recipient of infrastructure funding, I offered advice to the ministers from the business community perspective.
First, the minister should insist in cabinet that when regulatory ministries such as Environment are coming up with new directives, foisting new initiatives upon us that will require costly infrastructure from municipalities and, therefore, their taxpayers, the ministries should also be presenting compliance costs to government, not ignoring their impacts. I expressed that when I had previously served on the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund. We were being asked to use our annual funding to support municipalities in meeting a host of government-mandated infrastructure requirements. This funding was supposed to be used to grow and diversify our economy and support employment, not pay for government-dictated upgrades.
Second, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy had spoken about the incredible infrastructure challenges required to develop the resources of the Far North and benefit their communities, especially around the Ring of Fire. It must also be addressed that the resource areas in our Far North require infrastructure corridors that are predominantly north-south, be it road, rail, telecommunications, or electricity; the caribou run east-west. Conflicts within the provincial government’s priorities for the Far North must be tackled head-on; otherwise, the next 10 years will be characterized entirely by infrastructure planning, instead of any infrastructure building.
Third, having previously worked in central Timiskaming and lived in Englehart in the early ‘90s, I spent many weekends of quality time in Kirkland Lake. At the time, the community was losing people. Efforts to diversify the economy and keep itself afloat were the main preoccupation. Conversations often revolved around observations that after mining in the community had contributed billions of dollars to provincial and federal coffers, there was very little legacy infrastructure investment that resulted. A campus of Northern College remains the main, and perhaps sole, example. This is the case throughout the North.
One important legacy of MNDM Minister Rene Fontaine was that there would not be “new towns” built around new mines, with the huge infrastructure demands required; existing municipalities would service them instead.
There is no town of Hemlo or Detour Lake as a result; a wise move. However, the municipalities that are ‘home’ face considerable financial challenges related to infrastructure as well.
And lastly, while it is always useful to talk about long-term infrastructure plans, I strongly urged the ministers to return for further consultations following the December release of the province’s Growth Plan for Northern Ontario. When the draft Proposed Growth Plan was released in October 2009, infrastructure was to be a major component of the 25-year strategic document for developing Northern Ontario. Once the Growth Strategy is approved, prioritizing and embarking on a solid 10-year infrastructure plan should then be carried on within that 25-year context.
While government has a huge impact on how our economy moves forward, its role should be to both foster our development and to mitigate its dampening effects, especially its many contributions to uncertainty. Investors – local, national and international – are assessing their opportunities.
Harold Wilson is president and CEO of the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce, and COO of the Northwestern Ontario Associated Chambers of Commerce.