Northern Ontario doesn't have any serious economic problems. It does have political problems: Northern Ontario doesn't have a government, can't make plans, and can't make decisions.
Since the North can't make decisions, it will continue as it has for the last 100 years - drawing down its stock of natural resources while the provincial government invests northern revenues in southern Ontario.
As an economist I approve - the provincial government should drain the North as fast as it can. The North has only 750,000 or so people. The south has over 11 million. The people in the south own the resources.
Ontario is a democracy. The best and most democratic strategy is to maximize output with the smallest possible workforce in the North.
If that sounds like the same plan that mining and forestry companies follow, it should. How else would you run a resource colony?
Northerners may not like this strategy. They may think that Northern economic development is a good thing. They may want to create jobs for their own kids in Northern Ontario.
Too bad. The north is "born to die," as Dr. Michael Atkins put it last month in his column. But Atkins, who has been writing about Northern issues and fighting for Northern businesses for 30 years has made a proposal that could change the rules of the game. He is calling for a regional government for the North.
His arguments are supported by the best current thinking on economic development. For example, at the Canadian Political Science Association meetings in June, Tijs Crutzberg from the University of Toronto compared development strategies in Toronto and Austin Texas. Austin has a population no bigger than Northern Ontario's, but Austin has been amazingly successful in building a high-tech industrial base. How did it do it? By doing something like the Atkins option. Local community leaders and business people have developed what Crutzberg calls "strategic governance."
They didn't wait for state or federal government to solve their problems. Instead, they developed their own regional strategy. Their economy is booming.
In Northern Ontario, vital decisions are made piecemeal in a hundred different provincial committees. Very few are made in the North and there is no strategic plan.
The Ministry of Northern Development and Mines is supposed to play a central role in Northern affairs, but the ministry has no capacity for economic planning, and no responsibility for forestry, education, transportation, or industrial development. Since these are the keys to the North's future, the
Ministry may be more of a distraction than a help.
You probably thought that electing MPPs gives us some control of our future. After all, every Northern politician promises to fight for Northern development. The fact that the politicians were saying the same thing 50 years ago tells you they have not much influence yet. David Ramsay, the minister of Natural Resources, is a good example. In 1986 Northern Ontario Business reported his visionary plan to make Northern Ontario the centre for robotic mining technology. In 2005, it is the federal government, not the province, that is investing in a centre for robotics at Laurentian University.
The dean of Canadian development analysts is David Wolfe from the U of T. According to Wolfe, regions can successfully improve their prospects for economic development. Like Atkins, Wolfe argues that they need their own systems of regional governance. Wolfe argues for what he calls "associative government." Associative government is much more than municipal councils. Local firms, trade organizations, community groups and leading citizens work together to define the problems and implement the solutions.
They co-operate with senior levels of government, but they don't wait for them.
Wolfe, Cretzberg and Atkins are all saying the same thing. We need effective regional governance if we want economic development.
We don't have a working Northern government, so if the business community in Northern Ontario wants economic growth, it will have to support political development. And it will have to move quickly. The Northern population has begun to fall, resource companies are getting more footloose, and the power of the south is growing. The last government actually reduced the power of Northern councils and boards. Leaders are retiring and potential leaders are moving south.
It's time for the Northern Ontario Chambers of Commerce to call a joint meeting with the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities to hammer out the details of the Region of Northern Ontario Act.
The Chambers, and probably only the Chambers, can make the province act.
Dave Robinson is an associateprofessor of economics at Laurentian University. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.