On the weekend of March 6-7, 2020, Liberals from around Ontario will come will come together at the International Centre in Mississauga to pick a new leader. On the menu are six urban – mostly Toronto-region – politicians. This is as it should be in a province that is mostly urban and Toronto-centred.
Two of the candidates do have strategies for the North, which is encouraging.
One has even been endorsed by several Northern politicians.
But do any of them really understand Northern Ontario?
Or are they strangers in a strange land, applying what they know about the urban south to the mysterious North?
The most important fact about Northern Ontario isn’t about the North at all.
It is the great toad of the south, Toronto. Northern Ontario is not Toronto.
Toronto is by far the fastest growing city in Canada and the United States.
Toronto, in fact, is growing three times as fast as its nearest competition, Phoenix, Ariz.
Toronto adds the equivalent of one whole Sault Ste. Marie every year. Toronto adds a Sudbury every two years.
This puts Toronto issues at the centre of any provincial government agenda.
It also means that almost no policy that fits Toronto or even the province as a whole is likely to work in the North.
Toronto is growing though immigration.
Like most resource-producing areas, Northern Ontario is shrinking through outmigration.
Toronto also sits in the middle of the second-fastest growing metropolitan area in Canada and the U.S., a massive market area. It is the core of one of the richest and most attractive regions in the entire world.
It is the centre of a high-tech, innovation-based economy. Northern Ontario has none of these advantages.
The Liberal Leadership candidates seem overly impressed by the fact that immigration is the source of Canada’s growth, and especially Toronto’s growth.
They imagine the same formula will work up here. It is not likely.
Toronto’s growth is driven by people wanting to come to Canada.
People don’t move from Iraq, Somalia, Kenya or Hong Kong hoping to settle in Canada because it is has a vast boreal forest. They don’t flock to the boreal forests of Finland or Norway either. Most new Canadians are urban-trained and educated.
According to one study, 54.2 per cent of new immigrants in the prime working age had at least a bachelor’s degree.
By comparison, only 27.9 per cent of non-immigrants have the same level of education.
Highly educated parents want educational and job opportunities for their children.
Attracting them to a declining economy is like trying to push water uphill.
So what does Northern Ontario have going for it? First, it’s not Toronto.
In the early 20th century, Northern Ontario was often called “New Ontario.”
In the early 21st century, Northern Ontario should be called “Old Ontario.”
It is still dependent on the resources of the “old economy.”
It has an older population than the province as a whole.
Like all of Canada, the Northern population is largely made up of immigrants and their children, but most arrived in the middle years of the 20th century.
Northerners still lead lives a lot like the lives rural and suburban Canadians lived in the 1960s and ‘70s.
It was the age of road construction, suburban sprawl and big backyards.
That age is long gone in the GTA.
So who longs to live in the rural and suburban Canada of the 1960s and ‘70s?
Who wants their children to wander in the woods, swim in lakes, learn to canoe, and go to a fairly small high school?
Who has family and childhood memories in Northern Ontario? The young people who grew up here and had to leave.
An immigration strategy for Northern Ontario should probably focus on them.
Whoever wins the Liberal leadership will have to deal with the problems of a dynamic-21st century urban population.
Northern Ontario will never again be very important in the development of the province.
That is as it should be.
But the new leader has to remember the most important fact about the North: it is not Toronto.