Ed Deibel ignited the cause of Northern Ontario governance when he responded to a 1973 budget which proposed extending a seven per cent provincial sales tax to heating and electricity bills. Mr. Deibel organized a meeting of 500 concerned northerners and formed a tax repeal committee. The committee collected 24,000 signatures from across Northern Ontario opposing this tax. The government withdrew the proposal and from this committee came discussions about establishing a new province.
The committee prepared a series of demands for action on a wide range of issues facing Northern Ontario. Following then premier Bill Davis’s decision to ignore these demands, the committee gathered the required 10,000 signatures to form the Northern Ontario Heritage Party and elected Mr. Deibel as its leader.
The party established five strategies that they believed were essential for the economic growth of the North.
1. Designating Northern Ontario as a manufacturing centre;
2. Finding new and innovative ways to turn resources into manufactured products for export and domestic markets;
3. Build a culture of innovation and research by encouraging research and development in Northern Ontario universities and the transfer of new technologies and products to the new manufacturing culture in Northern Ontario;
4. Implement tax incentives for new jobs created in the manufacturing sector in Northern Ontario;
5. Enforcing the Ontario Mining Act condition that patent ores be treated in Canada.
Thirty-seven years later these strategies and issues sound awfully familiar.
Since 1973, the issue of governance of Northern Ontario has been raised from time to time. While the notion of a separate province has waned, the concern over the political status of this vast region of Canada has not gone away.
A paper written by Chelsea Peet, an Ontario legislative intern in 2008-09 and presented this past spring to the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, notes that, Northern Ontario covers 90 per cent of Ontario’s land mass and is occupied by only 6 per cent of the province's population. She also points out that the riding of Kenora-Rainy River, represented by Howard Hampton, covers one third of the entire land mass of the province of Ontario and that the riding of Timmins-James Bay, represented by Gilles Bisson is larger than the country of France. With 90 per cent of Ontario’s land mass represented by 11 MPPs and 96 MPPs representing the other 10 per cent, it is not difficult to understand the political deficit affecting Northern Ontario in the halls of provincial power.
Michael Atkins, president of the Laurentian Publishing Group, wrote in Northern Ontario Business, June 2009 that, “Northern Ontario needs legislative power similar to that given the city of Toronto, through the City of Toronto Act." Atkins proposes that the “Region of Northern Ontario Act”, would establish a new level of government represented by an elected Chairperson, two councillors from each urban centre and three or four councillors at large.
This governance structure would take responsibility for the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry and the Ministry of Natural Resources. Federal funding activity would be co-ordinated 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.
Atkins reflects on the juxtaposition of his commitment to the private sector and his advocacy for the establishment of another level of government and concludes that the dire state of the resource-based economy calls for new responses. He goes on to predict that the North will die if it does not take charge of its circumstances, imagine its opportunities and set about creating sustainable wealth. He acknowledges that this is extraordinarily difficult to do within our existing political framework.
“We have extracted the wealth and many of us have lived the good life these resources provided. We are leaving nothing for our grandchildren. We are failing miserably to deal with the root cause of our problems. Our best and brightest are voting with their feet. Why not try being accountable. The large urban mayors should think about this. Who else will speak for Northern Ontario?”
In 2005, Michael Atkins and Gerry Lougheed Jr. attended a meeting of the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce executive board committee. Their presentation proposed that the chambers of commerce in northeastern and northwestern Ontario were strategically positioned to lead a dialogue with northerners regarding governance and leadership. As a member of this committee, my board colleagues and I were intrigued by their presentation. We were encouraged to consult with chambers of commerce across Northern Ontario to seek their support and if successful, make an application for funding support from the two levels of senior government, to engage northerners in a discussion of leadership and governance.
The Greater Sudbury chamber took up this challenge. We travelled to the annual general meetings of the northeast and northwest chambers of commerce, securing unanimous support for this initiative. We then prepared a detailed funding proposal for consideration by FedNor and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund. This funding was to finance a consultation process hosted by chambers of commerce across Northern Ontario that would culminate in a northern summit to be held in Sault Ste Marie. The end result would be the presentation of concrete recommendations for changes to the way that we support emerging leaders and govern Northern Ontario, within the context of being part of the province of Ontario.
In retrospect, it should not be a surprise to anyone that these funding requests were turned down. It would have been brave indeed for existing government structures and programs to support a process that had the potential to criticize the status quo, while proposing changes that could affect the power of these same structures and programs.
The Ontario government has just released a discussion paper reflecting the input gathered from consultations on the “Northern Ontario Growth Plan. In addition, consultations and research continues on potential reforms to the forest tenure process. Nowhere in these discussions has the issue of governance and power for Northern Ontario been raised.
I am convinced that if this discussion is to take place in a meaningful, no strings attached manner, it will need to be driven and financed by northern communities. This engagement will require unprecedented leadership from the northeast and northwest municipal associations, working co-operatively towards a shared goal of establishing an interdependent relationship with Queen's Park, as opposed to the dependent relationship that exists today. The costs to undertake this process must be shared by our northern communities through the leadership of its mayors and councils. The process must be transparent and engage all Northerners from all walks of life. It must be focused, concrete and supported with sufficient resources to produce a credible and powerful set of actions. We cannot rely on others to take up this challenge; this must come from our elected community leaders and local taxpayers.
If we are not prepared to step up to the plate and take ownership for this issue, then it should be dropped, and the status quo embraced. I hope that this is not the case. As a Northerner, I want to take responsibility for the future of my family and our communities, away from Bay Street, and place it squarely in Northern Ontario.