It is not the Ides of March that should concern those of us who live in the north, it is March 23. That is the day that the PC Party of Ontario will choose a new leader and, by extension, the next premier of Ontario.
So why should that be of concern to you? Your puzzlement is quite legitimate. Unless you are a card-carrying party member, it is quite possible that this most important decision has hardly come to your attention. Reporting on the contest has been superficial and sporadic, focusing mainly on the contest rather than on substance.
Maybe this results from the fact that the campaign is being fought, riding by riding, with only members of the party eligible to vote. Given that the PC Party membership only represents a very small proportion of Ontario voters, how do the media find them in order to fairly and accurately report the story? Perhaps the fact that one candidate, by press accounts, seems to be a shoo-in, has relegated the media to only reporting on the more bizarre cat-fight elements of the electioneering, rather than offering any interpretation or commentary on what it might mean to the north, depending on who wins in the end.
Regardless, the out-of-sight, out-of-mind nature of the leadership contest bodes ill for Northern Ontario, or at least it might bode ill. I say might because who really knows what position each candidate might have regarding the present and future state of Northern Ontario?
True, we know that at least one candidate is willing to reinstate the spring bear hunt and at least one other is prepared to revisit the issue. In another instance, several of the candidates have stated a preference for two co-equal four-year campuses for the new Northern Ontario Rural Medical School - one in Sudbury and the other in Thunder Bay. The others are prepared to revisit the issue.
But does the future of Northern Ontario, and its role as a contributor to Ontario's future well-being, rise and fall on just these two issues, important as they might be?
What position have the candidates taken on Northern Ontario issues such as: the rising rate of chronic unemployment and underemployment, our higher share of death-dealing affliction such as heart attacks, cancer diabetes and suicide, the trend of replacing industry jobs with call centres, the absence of significant research and development in the north, the need for our educated youth to go elsewhere to find jobs and the resultant dumbing down of the local labour force, the impact of downloading, revisions to the assessment formulas and the freezing of commercial/industrial tax rates on the economic viability of our cities and towns, particularly our small, remote, single-industry communities. What about stagnant population growth and, more commonly, decline, the impact of a growing Aboriginal population, the deprivation of Aboriginal communities and the population shift to our towns and cities, the need to get on with building constructive partnerships that will lead to development and job creation north of 50, the need to dump the “One size fits all” approach to government services and programs and the need to restore the north’s opportunities to define northern needs and opportunities and to help shape northern responses.
The list could go on to much greater length. Add your own issues.
The reality is that northern issues have hardly registered on the radar screen of the PC leadership race (or on the government and the opposition parties) despite the fact that our region is at a crossroads. Either we regain our status as a serious contributor to Ontario’s well-being or we risk becoming Cape Breton West. Somehow, and to a degree, we have only ourselves to blame, most members of the legislature, in all three parties, perceive us to be dependent on Ontario's welfare rather than as a high yield investment opportunity. What we get from the government is given grudgingly.
So what can be done? The leadership campaign still has some time to go before March 23. There is a clear role and responsibility for Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities and the Northern Ontario Municipal Association in conjunction with other partners such as the regional chambers of commerce, to drive northern issues to the front and centre of the leadership campaign. They can submit response questionnaires to each candidate that will demand that the candidates declare themselves on each issue of concern to the north. They can require written, on-the-record responses. They can pack the remaining debates with northern representatives uncommitted to any candidate. They can encourage every interested northerner to join the PC Party and encourage block voting for the candidate who goes furthest in committing to join with us as we strive to meet our needs and fulfill our ambitions.
The old phrase, "The squeaky wheel gets the grease!" has not lost its currency. While time is of the essence, it is not too late. It is time for our leadership to rise up, band together, and to fight the good fight for the north.
Bob Michels is an author and a consultant living in Atikokan.