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Northern Ontario is a fossil with a future

Once upon a time Britain had a colony. And this unusual colony had a colony of its own. Then the colony-with-a-colony joined with other colonies and got some more colonies.
David Robinson, Economist, Laurentian University,

Once upon a time Britain had a colony. And this unusual colony had a colony of its own. Then the colony-with-a-colony joined with other colonies and got some more colonies. And Canada was born!

That isn’t quite the history we were taught, but it is technically correct. And this version actually provides a clue about the economic future of Northern Ontario.

The colony originally called Canada was the most valuable of Britain’s North American possessions (after the Americans jumped ship). Britain was such an empire builder that even the British colonies wanted colonies. Upper Canada grabbed what we now call Northern Ontario. Then Upper Canada and Lower Canada got together to grab all the British territory east of the Rocky Mountains and south of the North Pole.

Personally, I’m happy that they did this. If they hadn’t, those nasty Americans would have gobbled most of what we now call Canada.

But Canada is coming to the end of its Colonial Era. For more than 100 years the federal government has been transferring its decision-making powers to the territories it grabbed. In 1905, Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces. In the 1970s, the federal government began devolving power to the nearly empty northern territories. In 1978, the Yukon elected its first legislative assembly. In 2003, it got most of the powers of a province. Eventually, the Yukon will become a province of Canada.

Northern Ontario could eat the Yukon for breakfast. The territory has about one 20th of the population of Northern Ontario and half of the area. The Yukon’s advantage is that the Yukon is a federal territory. Northern Ontario is a provincial colony, and no province has ever given up control of any territory.

But history is marching on. On March 11, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced another devolution: Ottawa is handing control of land, water and resources to the Government of the Northwest Territories. “Northerners are best placed to make the important decisions about how to run their economies and how to maximize use of their resources,” said Harper. And he went on to explain why devolution was a good thing: “…this historic agreement will…lead to jobs, growth and long-term prosperity across the territory.”

Devolution would lead to “jobs, growth and long-term prosperity” in Northern Ontario, too. Being the last real colony has a serious downside. Colonies rarely develop economically.

It is no accident that Northern Ontario is in an economic decline while Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta and the Yukon are roaring ahead. Those areas don’t have more resources, better access to markets or smarter people than Northern Ontario. They have political independence and they use it to find paths that fit their own special situations. The simple fact is that Southern Ontario is more interested in taking resources out of the North than it is in developing the North.

Northerners have at least as much right to govern the unique territory they inhabit as Yukoners or NWTers have. Probably more: like the Yukon, the NWT also has about one 20th of the population on Northern Ontario. The Aboriginal population of Northern Ontario alone is much bigger than the population of the NWT. We could eat this province-to-be for lunch.

When devolution is complete at the national level, Northern Ontario will be the last remaining Canadian colony. We will be in the last living remnant of 19th century imperialism. We will be the biggest political fossil in the world! It doesn’t seem likely that this situation can last forever.

Until Ontario comes to terms with reality, though, Northerners should take advantage of our colonial status. For example, we should launch a tourism campaign to take advantage of what makes us unique in Canada. Slogans like “Visit the Last Great Colony!” and “Talk to a genuine colonial!’’ would probably attract more Americans than the bear hunt! We could recruit students to Northern universities with irresistible lines like, “Spend a year in a political fossil,” or “Study in the 19th century,” or even “Watch an independence movement grow.”

Political independence may not be on the agenda for Northern Ontario yet, but the history of Canada suggests it is coming. Until then, Northerners better enjoy living in the past.