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Is Northern Ontario doomed?

Northern Ontario will be here long after Trump is gone, NATO collapses and China becomes the leading power in the world, but what will Northern Ontario be like in 50 years?
David Robinson, Laurentian University economist and director for the Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development

Are you having a good day? Ready for a depressing thought? If you aren’t, skip to another article. If you recently read Joshua Fischer’s blog post “Goodbye to the West,” or watched “Decadence: The Decline of the West” on the Smithsonian channel, just quietly close up Northern Ontario business and come back another day.

This column isn’t about anything so grand as the course of Western civilization. It just asks a few questions about the future of Northern Ontario. Nothing to get worried about — Northern Ontario will be here long after Trump is gone, NATO collapses and China becomes the leading power in the world. 

The real question is, “What will Northern Ontario be like in 50 years?” Bigger and better? Smaller and poorer? Older and Aboriginal? We do have some strong signals about what is coming.

Unfortunately, they are signals that many Northerners don’t want to hear. For example, the Ministry of Finance 2016 forecast for Greater Sudbury says that the population of the city in 2041 will be 163,875. That is 513 fewer than in 2015. So why do the engineers for the City of Slightly Smaller Sudbury keep telling their city council to invest in road expansion to accommodate a growing population? It is a mystery, especially for a city that already has more roads per capita than any other city in the province. And more potholes.

People in the rest of the northeast have nothing to gloat about, however. The ministry forecasts 22,000 fewer people in the northeast. People in the northwest can gloat a little: the northwest will gain 3,000 people. The big winner will be Kenora, with an increase of 4,300, but Thunder Bay will gain 1,267. Others will decline.

These forecasts are not engraved in stone — they are guesses. They just happen to be the best available guesses, and are consistent with the most powerful economic trends shaping Canada. All over the world, areas like ours are declining.

Compared to 2008, employment in Northern Ontario has fallen by 7 per cent. The decline is driven by a basic technological fact. As a resource-based economy, we live off the land: we harvest trees and minerals. The land is not getting more productive, but people are getting more efficient. As a result, the demand for labour in the resource sector drops by as much as 4 per cent per year.

During the economic recovery from 2010 to 2015, provincial employment grew by 1.1 per cent, jobs in the Greater Golden Horseshoe increased by 1.8 per cent, and employment in Northern Ontario fell by 0.2 per cent. The employment rate in the North is 7 per cent lower than the employment rate for Ottawa and the Toronto regions. This is a situation sure to drive young people out.

To be fair, the North has partially offset the decline in resource jobs by adding commercial, professional, and educational jobs. We have been so successful in bringing in government jobs that we have more than any region in the province, except Ottawa. It is a kind of job subsidy from the big city people. Recently, though, we are seeing hospitals and government jobs pulled out of the smaller communities. Services are being cut as well.

Adding insult to injury, the hospital in Sudbury has decided to outsource laundry services to a firm in southern Ontario. Mark Twain is said to have said that, “You can't make an economy by taking in each other's laundry,” and he was right. There has to be an outside source of income. But taking in each other’s laundry keeps money in the community longer, and supports more people. We will see more and more outsourcing as government budgets get tighter.

And money will get tighter as the major cities grow. Toronto attracts Canadians from across the country and still captures over 40 per cent of Canadian immigrants. As the North weakened, the Greater Golden Horseshoe became an irresistible magnet for people, business, jobs and government spending. 

None of this says that the North is doomed. It may say that the boom-and-bust North of the past is dead. It certainly says it is time to start planning our towns and cities for smaller, older populations. It’s time to rethink the North.