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Disappearing Northerners and the emerging North

Here is an update on the Northern Growth Plan. The population of Northern Ontario in 1991 was 822,000. Twenty years later almost 30,000 Northerners had disappeared. The population had fallen to 775,000.
David Robinson, Economist, Laurentian University,

Here is an update on the Northern Growth Plan. The population of Northern Ontario in 1991 was 822,000. Twenty years later almost 30,000 Northerners had disappeared. The population had fallen to 775,000.

Ontario’s Ministry of Finance expected a population of 803,000 in 2011.

They overestimated by 28,000. Then they went on to predict that the population would grow by another 6,400 over the next 25 years. They’re probably wrong about that, too.

Population numbers matter for Northerners. For example, they tell us that the Northern Growth Plan was based on bad estimates. North­ern mayors are right to start work­ing on a plan of their own. They also tell us some interesting things about what the North will become.

They also show that Northern Ontario is on a very different path from our friends in Upper Canada.

Upper Canada—or Southern On­tario as it is sometimes called—is an economic tiger, the absolute heart of the Canadian economy, and it is undergoing an astonish­ing transformation. It has a popu­lation that is expected to grow by 3.5 million over the next 25 years. Upper Canada will have to digest the equivalent of four-and-one-half Northern Ontarios. Try to get atten­tion in Queen’s Park over the next 25 years!

Southern Ontario is growing away from the North culturally, as well. Newcomers to Upper Canada are mostly immigrants who know little about Toronto and nothing about Northern Ontario. They are not so much immigrants to Canada as part of the massive migration to large cities that is taking place all over the world. Upper Canada is becoming something new and very interesting, but at the same time it is losing its memory of the North.

While the South goes one way, the people of Northern Ontario are go­ing through a completely different cultural transformation. Northern Ontario’s population doubled be­tween 1931 and 1961. In those days Northern Ontario was a land of immigrants and opportunity, like Upper Canada is now. It was a soci­ety divided by religion, class, race and national origin. Today the pop­ulation is sliding back to the 1961 level. Thirty years without growth means 30 years of Northerners get­ting to know their neighbours. Old conflicts have faded. New alliances have formed. Northern Ontario is becoming a society with one foot planted firmly in the traditional resource industries and one foot in the World Wide Web. Northern Ontario is becoming, as they say in Quebec, a “distinct society.”

The population data reveals other changes. The Ministry of Finance has maps that show Northern Ontario divided into four demo­graphic zones. Closest to Toronto, the cottage zone includes Manitou­lin, Parry Sound and Nipissing. It will grow by attracting retiring baby boomers. Climate change will let them grow grapes, and the entire region will drift away from old Nou­vel Ontario culturally.

The industrial district of Sudbury will also grow a bit, depending on how smart the city leaders are. Districts farther from Toronto—Algoma, Cochrane, Temiskaming, Thunder Bay and Rainy River (ex­cept the Kenora district)—are pre­dicted to lose people.

The ministry thought the Kenora district would be the one exception because of relatively high birth rates in First Nation communities. Kenora is a province-sized region with a current population of about 54,000. The recent census shows the district lost 10 per cent of its popu­lation between 2006 and 2011. That has serious implications for devel­opment in the northwest. The talk about mining companies relying heavily on a growing pool of young­sters from small First Nation com­munities is probably 90 per cent fan­tasy. Kids are still leaving the North, and they are more likely to leave the poorest, least modern communities. There is also evidence that First Na­tion birth rates have fallen in the Cochrane district. It isn’t clear they are not dropping in Kenora as well.

It is clear that Northern Ontario and old Upper Canada are sailing in different directions. That’s not a bad thing. It does mean that the MPPs from Beaches-East York or Etobicoke North will have a pretty hard time solving problems for the North, with its different biol­ogy, geology, economy and cultures. Maybe they would like someone to say, “Relax—we’ll take care of the North. You try to fix the mess in your own backyard.”