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OPINION: Three wishes for the North: number two

Ontario needs Northern development, but the way it plays its major pieces is stuck in the 20th century.
David Robinson, economist and director of the Laurentian University Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development

Greg Rickford, minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines, emphasized investing in people and technologies. For Northern development, that means investing in people and technologies in the North.

Last month I asked what to ask for if Premier Doug Ford gives us just three wishes. For wish one, I suggested that we lobby for a cross-laminated timber industry. For wish two, I suggest we ask for brains. I’m not saying we don’t have brains. I’m suggesting the research and educational facilities that support our Northern industries should be located in the North.

Right now, the province takes tax money from Northern Ontario taxes and buys brains for universities in the south. For example, of the three Ontario universities offering mining engineering programming – Laurentian, Queen’s and Toronto – two are in southern universities, hundreds of kilometres from where the mining happens. All three are ranked globally behind UBC and McGill. Ontario, one of the leading mining jurisdictions in the world, supports three third-rate mining engineering programs. 

The province would be smarter (and richer) if it concentrated resources on one world-class institution. Where should it go? Where the mining is happening. Both the southern programs are fading and Laurentian is ascendant. Mr. Rickford should be telling Merrilee Fullerton, minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, that the southern programs should be transferred to Laurentian in Northern Ontario where the mines are.

The transfer would be a win for the province – it gets a world-class mining school and eliminates costly duplicate university programs. But would the old universities accept a transfer? The program at Queen’s is 124 years old. It has endowments from grateful graduates. Toronto’s program is supported by a generous gift from industry giant Pierre Lassonde. U of T even renamed its program the Lassonde Institute of Mining. Could Fullerton and Rickford get the old universities give up these venerable and well-endowed programs?

They could take a page from Trump’s “Art of the Deal.” Offer to trade low-status mining programs for support to build globally respected departments in new fields. It is not about taking resources form the south. It is about letting southern universities trade up. The province needs to be aggressively developing new technologies but it can’t afford scatter funds all over the province. It can turn three overlapping weak programs into three distinct winners. University and donor names could be carried over to the new mining super school. 

Mining is not the only industry where the province extracts resources mainly for the benefit of the south. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is responsible for Ontario’s provincial parks, forests, fisheries, wildlife, mineral aggregates and the Crown lands and waters that make up 87 per cent of the province. Guess where the vast majority of those resources are? Northern Ontario. Guess where the ministry has its headquarters? In the great forestry town of Peterborough, Ont.

Development policy used to be like feeding chickens: throw money where you want companies to go. It didn’t work well. Today, development is like chess: you put the big public pieces – the research centres, government offices and universities – where they interact with regional businesses. Some call this cluster theory.

Unfortunately, it is not enough to tell Northern Ontario Business readers how to boost development. The province has to buy in. To get the province to buy in will take a co-ordinated effort from Northern politicians and businesses.

What is at stake? The future of the North. We have enormous wood and mineral resources, but we don’t have the brains to develop them. We have the motivation to build the Northern economy, but we don’t have the critical mass of research and educational institutions to pull talent and investment from competing regions around the world.

Ontario needs Northern development, but the way it plays its major pieces is stuck in the 20th century. The winners in the 21st century will be global competitors in the knowledge economy, and the province has been hobbling the North. Let’s wish that Premier Ford will finally give the North the brains it needs.