Single-industry towns only exist to supply an outside market. The U.S. Navy wants nickel? Build a nickel town. Chicago needs pine to rebuild after the Great Fire? Build logging towns. New York and Philadelphia need paper for newspapers? Build pulp mills.
The people who do the work in single-industry resource towns are like the beater on the end of the vacuum cleaner hose: they loosen up whatever it is that the market needs to suck in. As often as not, when we talk about investment in Northern Ontario, we mean bigger vacuum cleaners.
And if the market loses interest, the people can fold up their tents and move on. Resource towns are really just disposable pop cans for the growing cities: when the contents are gone, just crush 'em and chuck 'em.
Northerners may not like this vision, but from the southern point of view, it makes sense. Why waste resources on permanent facilities in Northern Ontario? Why not have fly-in mines? Why not build a few super mills and move the loggers around? Why leave any money in Northern Ontario if you can use it somewhere else?
For the rest of the world, people in Northern Ontario are a cost, not a benefit. Inco spent 30 years cutting its workforce. Vale took a year-long strike to control labour costs. The sawmills and pulp mills will continue to replace people with machines. The railroads have cut crews and service. An influential 2003 study for the province actually recommended planning for the graceful decline of many Northern towns.
Declining populations outside of the major cities is the moose on the roof of Northern politics. The Northern Growth Plan avoided the issue, and none of our local politicians seem prepared to talk about it. Even the newly reconstituted Northern Ontario Heritage Party hasn't mentioned the subject.
If you would like to see economic development in Northern Ontario, you need to find another model of development. So far, we haven't found one.
Development is not automatic for a region like ours. In fact, underdevelopment is the default mode. Letting resources flow out is automatic. Taking orders from outside is automatic. Development is revolutionary. It might even be illegal.
Economic development is basically a political problem. The one thing that the region needs to develop economically is political leadership. And we don't have it.
We do have people who are paid to speak for various industries, but they are actually lobbyists, not leaders. We have municipal representatives. They are elected as caretakers with very local responsibilities. They are not leaders as a rule, and they are not responsible for regional development. Provincial MLAs are not elected for their regional development strategies either. They are elected to sit in Parliament and talk. Parliament is all about talk; that is what the word means. They rarely have the experience or vision they would need to create a strategy.
We don't have leaders because we have no way to develop leaders. Potential leaders are created when there are opportunities to lead. In Northern Ontario, there are no opportunities to lead at the regional level: you can lead the local hockey association or the school board. You can compete in the popularity contests called elections at the municipal level or even the provincial riding level. But how do you compete to lead at the level of Northern Ontario? Politically, Northern Ontario does not exist.
Economic development in Northern Ontario will continue on its automatic and gruesome way until we decide to do something different. Unless we decide to change the pattern, Northerners will keep helping to suck the resources out.
The problem is that we can't decide on a different strategy because we don't actually exist politically. We exist as a source of resources owned by Ontario as a whole.
And for Ontario as a whole, sucking the North dry makes sense. Forests, mines and towns are all disposable.