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Is there anyone in Northern Ontario? (08/06)

Let me try to convince you that Northern Ontario is uninhabited. It is a theory that explains a lot about the way the North is run.

Let me try to convince you that Northern Ontario is uninhabited. It is a theory that explains a lot about the way the North is run. If there are no people - and I mean people who count politically - then the resources can be bought and sold by the people who do count. They won’t even need to ask whether we non-existent northerners will benefit from the policies and buyouts.

I know it sounds like wild rhetoric to claim there is no one in Northern Ontario - we do elect members of parliament don’t we? There is a tiny Ministry of Northern Affairs, isn’t there? Fednor is supposed to promote economic development, isn’t it? We get to elect our own toothless school boards and our own municipal governments, don’t we?

But look at things the other way around. Northern Ontario could hardly be more different from the rest of the province. The region has a resource-based economy that is radically different from southern Ontario. The boreal forest is a distinctive ecological region. The seven per cent of Ontario’s population that lives in Northern Ontario (Including Parry Sound) includes 43 per cent of the province’s aboriginal population and 27  per cent of the province’s francophone population. So why is this distinct society run out of the closets of about 40 different ministries and departments?

The non-existence of Northern Ontario is the result of a brilliant move by the leaders of Upper Canada 156 years ago. As they moved toward negotiations about Confederation they realized that they would get to keep any territories that were part of Upper Canada going into the negotiations.

So in 1850 an ex-fur trader, Mr. William Benjamin Robinson, raced off and bought the land north of the Great Lakes from the local equivalents of Scott Hand on behalf of Queen Victoria. Until the Robinson treaties were signed the North shore of the Great Lakes was occupied by allies of the Queen. The Aboriginal peoples had some claim to being a nation. But when principal men of the Ojibwa signed the treaty, the entire territory was suddenly legally empty. According to the treaty only the reserves were populated. 

Adding French loggers didn’t change the equation. The French were mistrusted even more that the Ojibwa. Adding workers from many non-British nations over the next half century didn’t change the equation either. Those Italians and Poles and Finns and all the other riffraff could work in the mines, but they weren’t fit to have self-government. The newcomers were largely working class, ill-educated, politically suspect, and presumably transient.  The North was still empty.

And it still is empty politically. There never was a point where the province said to the people “You are adults now - you run the place.”

But what does this outrageous view of northern history have to do with business today? Nothing could be more obvious. Northerners need a plan for developing the regional economy. Northerner’s need more of the resource revenues to flow through northern communities before it leaks out the bottom and streams into the banks of Toronto and New York.  That won’t happen until the North is run for northerners. And that won’t happen until there are officially people in Northern Ontario.

Until recently the peoples that make up Northern Ontario have been divided by race and language. The divisions helped keep them dependent on southern parties and government departments.  There are still frictions and resentments, but the situation has changed. We are finally seeing the separate streams growing together. The North is no longer just dispossessed Aboriginals and transient workers and misplaced Francophones. It is increasingly a population of assured, talented, educated, native northerners who recognize their common interests and who want to stay in the North. 

In the long run, northern business people will help themselves if they encourage northerners to think of themselves as a single people. By encouraging pride in the entire community they can lay a foundation for future prosperity. When northerners see themselves as one people they will have finally arrived, and Northern Ontario won’t be empty anymore.

David Robinson is a professor of economics at Laurentian University. He can be reached