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Northern Growth Plan: stuck in the twilight zone

  Here in Ontario's Twilight Zone, words have strange meanings, plans are not plans, empty talk is bold action, growth is declining population.
Dr. David Robinson

Here in Ontario's Twilight Zone, words have strange meanings, plans are not plans, empty talk is bold action, growth is declining population.

The Honorable Minister of Northern Development Mines and Forests, Michael Gravelle and the outgoing Honourable Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, George Smitherman released their Northern Growth Plan proposal October 23.

They described it as a blueprint for the region's economic future. It's a pretty funny blueprint.

For example, the Plan of Action for transportation begins with "Develop and implement a plan." Translation? "Our plan is to plan to make a blueprint."

The Plan of Action for Regional Service Delivery is even worse: it proposes to "initiate a review." Translation? "Our plan is to start to get ready to plan." The ministers call this "setting a course for bold action." Kafka couldn't have said it better.

Consider the "Plan of Action" for forestry: the first item in the "Plan of Action" is to "Introduce a proposed new forest tenure and pricing system."

This makes a lot of sense, given that almost everyone agrees that the tenure system is a major barrier to development in Northern Ontario.

The problem is there is no new tenure system proposed and the next four items in the "plan" depend on the proposed new tenure system. You can choose your own interpretation: Either 1) there is no Growth Plan for forestry, or 2) the province has a tenure system and plan that it is not telling us about.

The final item in the Plan of Action for forestry is a masterpiece of strategic thinking: "Recognize wood as a renewable resource." This seems to say that the government hadn't recognized that wood is a renewable resource until 2009. Over a year of consultations obviously accomplished something.

Now consider two more key statements from the so-called plan: 1) The Provincial Government is spending more than $3 billion over the next three years on infrastructure in Northern Ontario. 2) Some time next year the provincial government may have a plan based on the Northern Growth Plan Proposal.

You can choose your own interpretation. Either 1) the province is spending without a plan, or 2) the province has a plan and it isn't telling us. Of course if Number 2 is true, the whole Growth Plan exercise was a sham.
The ministers say they have a "Vision for Northern Ontario." In 2036, they say, "Northern Ontario will have a skilled, educated and healthy population that is supported by world-class resources, leading-edge technology and modern infrastructure." This seems to say that Northern Ontario has an unskilled, ill-educated, and sick population that is not supported by world-class resources. Somehow one of the richest resource regions in the world has been so mismanaged that the people need a major overhaul.

And in the brave new world of 2036, "Municipalities, Aboriginal communities, government and industry work together to achieve shared economic, environmental and community goals." Doesn't this imply that they don't work together now - that government does not work with communities today? The mind-bending part is that the government is planning to spend 27 years learning to cooperate with Northerners!

The only well-developed part of the growth plan is the section on energy.

George Smitherman plans to build transmission lines and generation capacity to supply Toronto. One map shows lots of nice red arrows pointing toward Toronto, where he hopes to become mayor. It's not good for the North, but it's a plan. Smitherman probably wanted to get this part out in public before he left cabinet.

The real mind-bender is the parts that are missing. There is nothing about local control. There is no mention of community forests. There's not a word about keeping resource revenues in the North. There is nothing about converting the North to cheap green energy. These are the keys to Northern growth. Without them, the Growth Plan is a plan to keep doing what has already failed.

A year of work has produced a document with little content and less support.

Northerners have a right to expect something much better. Let's hope that this is just Minister Gravelle's warm-up pitch, and that Northern Ontario isn't destined to remain in the Twilight Zone of policy forever.

Dave Robinson is an economist with the Institute for Northern Ontario Research at Laurentian