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OPINION: It’s time for Northern Conservatives to unite

The real challenge is to increase labour demand in Northern Ontario, not supply.
David Robinson, economist, Laurentian University/director, Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development

If your kids won’t stay, why should new Canadians?

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has announced a pilot project that he hopes will boost “dwindling economies” in Northern Ontario. It is not a bad labour market program. Employers get to directly select immigrants to hire, and some immigrants get to choose Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Timmins and North Bay, or one of six other communities to make their permanent residence. The communities will get support to help them attract and retain skilled workers.

The problem is that it will do very little for the Northern economy. Northern kids move away for jobs, opportunities and excitement. Newcomers are not going to arrive trailing clouds of jobs, opportunities and excitement. The program is really magical thinking, disguised as a development strategy.

A growing economy is what attracts immigrants. To hold our kids or attract immigrants, we have to create jobs. The minister of immigration, however, says that the Northern economies are “dwindling,” so he is offering bribes to get newcomers to move into dwindling communities.

And who is paying for these bribes? Obviously, it must be workers in areas that are not “dwindling.” And how is the settlement funding distributed? Under existing programs, Québec gets $559 million for about 40,000 immigrants in 2019-20. Ontario gets $340 million for 130,000 immigrants a year. Apparently, it takes five times as much to convince an immigrant to stay in Québec as in Ontario.  How much will it cost to coax a new Canadian family to stay in Timmins compared to, say, Etobicoke?

I am not complaining about settlement assistance for immigrants – these programs speed up integration into the labour market and into Canadian society. They make newcomers happier and economically productive sooner. That is good for them and good for the country. But is it really helpful to bribe workers to go to cities where labour demand is low?

The real challenge is to increase labour demand in Northern Ontario, not supply.

Demand is when someone wants to buy what you have. What does Northern Ontario have? One obvious answer is trees: lots of trees. But trees standing in the forest have pretty limited economic value. Someone has to cut them down, saw them up, maybe laminate or glue chunks together, and move the result to where it is needed. This adds economic value. Northerners get paid for adding value to nature’s gift.

Unfortunately, with improved technology, we need fewer and fewer Northerners to ship out the wood. That is why our economy is “dwindling.”

We won’t get a lot more trees to cut, so the one strategy remaining is to add more value to each tree. How? That is the key question for Northern Ontario economic development. We know a big part of the answer: produce cross-laminated timber (CLT), glulam and other heavy construction materials here in the North for the monster construction market emerging in the Toronto region.

Northern wood could be processed by factories in the south closer to the market, but the new value and the new jobs would all be added in the south. The opportunity would be lost. Poor Minister Hussen’s pilot project for immigrants will turn out to be a bust.

Fortunately, it is pretty easy to kickstart the production of cross-laminated timber in the North. Doug Ford’s cabinet simply has to decide to commit wood for, say, the first three CLT factories in Northern Ontario. Guaranteeing a wood supply is essential. There is wood that is not being harvested and the law says the rights can be reallocated by the minister in charge. It is a low-risk, high payoff strategy. It is certainly easier, more productive and less risky politically than breaking a contract with the Beer Store.

And this is where Northern Conservatives – mayors, councillors, party executives – can play a key role. Who else has the ear of Doug Ford and the Northern MPPs? This is where our Conservative MPPs – Fedeli, Rickford and Romano – get to show if they can really deliver.

If Northern Conservatives unite on a plan to push for mass timber production, there will be job growth in Northern Ontario. If not? Then watch the dwindling continue.