As an economist, I often get calls from the media about national and provincial issues. As an economist who studies economic development in Northern Ontario, I don’t get many calls. Most of those are asking for a speaker and almost none want my advice on economic development. I have only had a few calls from First Nation communities. I’d like to think I know something about development, so why am I left sitting in a corner sad and lonely?
It could be because everyone knows that academics, including me, are pretty useless. I’d hate to think so, but it could be. It could be the economic development people in Northern Ontario are so good they don’t need academic advice. It could be that the province is doing such a good job that that no one needs independent research and advice from the ivory tower.
My guess is that that because Northern universities have never focused on economic development issues for the North, media people and economic development officers simply don’t think about heading to the campus for help. The exception is the Community Economic and Social Development program at Algoma University. More recently, Laurentian University has established a new School of Northern Development that will do research and provide courses on Northern Ontario development. Things are getting better, however slowly.
Meanwhile, if you want a course in economic development you go to Waterloo. Not exactly a hotbed of specialists in Northern development, but very nice people. If you want a professional development certificate as an economic development officer, you contact the Economic Developers Council of Ontario (EDAC). If you are working with First Nations, you go to the Council for the Advancement of Native Development officers (CANDO). The Akwesasne Economic Development Agency also offers training, education and employment to First Nations people involved in economic development.
First Nations communities are especially concerned about economic development. The Union of Ontario Indians, based in North Bay, has developed an economic blueprint. In the Northwest, where players are circling around the Ring of Fire, the Matawa Chiefs Council offers economic development advisory services to the communities it serves. Some communities have economic development officers of their own.
The First Nations economic development officers (EDOs) in the Northwest may be the most important people in the system at this strange point in Ontario history. The Northwest is a huge, thinly populated area that is suddenly opening up to development. How it develops depends on people like Lewis Nate, the interim EDO for tiny Eabametoong, and James Suganaqueb, EDO for Webequie. Webequie, by the way, is the community closest to the Ring of Fire. Assuming anyone listens to them, their vision will help shape the future of the whole North.
If they were to ask me, I would probably go back to something my father told me long ago. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I still think it was a silly thing to say to a six-year-old, but it seems relevant for the North. He said, “Make no little plans, my son, for they have no magic to stir men’s souls.”
At the time, I had no plans at all, and no idea that it was important to stir men’s souls. Now I think that it is important to come up with a plan for the Northwest that will stir souls. The souls that matter are the people who live there now and the people in Queen’s Park like Brad Duguid, the minister of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure.
Duguid is a Toronto boy, but he has served as minister of Aboriginal Affairs, minister of Energy and Infrastructure, minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, and minister of Training Colleges and Universities. He could be the next premier of Ontario. He is in the right place with the right stuff. If Nate and Suganaqueb are at the bottom of the economic development pyramid, Duguid is at the top.
And what will stir Duguid’s soul? It would have to be dramatic and inclusive, something that would make Ontario a model for the whole world and launch the First Nations of the region into the 21st century. And what could that be? Are you asking?