Kathleen Wynne made her first serious mistake in dealing with Northern Ontario even before she became premier. Asked whether she supported regional government for the North, she said no. She said she didn’t want to support Northern separation. She said, “We‘re one Ontario. I believe we should stay as one Ontario.”
So now we know our new premier thinks regional government for the North is the road to separation. We know she is afraid that the North wants to leave. We know that in some dark corner of her mind she must know the North has good reasons to want to leave.
And that repressed thought frightens her so much that she won’t even consider a long overdue change in the way the North is governed. She is acting like the husband who won’t let his wife make decisions in case she decides to leave him. No wonder all the Northern MPPs supported Sandra Pupatello.
Wynne’s alternative to local control was to dust off an old trick: she promised to create a Northern cabinet committee and hold a cabinet meeting in the North by March 11. She wants to look like she is doing something, but she doesn’t want to do what should be done.
Glen Murray introduced the idea of regional government to the Liberal leadership contest back in December. His experience as mayor of Winnipeg and as president of the Canadian Urban Institute taught him the benefits of local control. It doesn’t make him a separatist. He is actually a big Toronto booster. But he knows that the 2007 City of Toronto Act already gives Toronto extra powers as a regional government. He supports even more local control in the south. He was just suggesting that the North should have the same powers the south has.
Wynne has been part of a failed Northern strategy. She has held the education, transportation, and municipal affairs portfolios. But each of those ministries have done badly by Northern Ontario - before, after, and while she had control. We still don’t have a coherent transportation plan. Municipal Affairs blocked the use of safe, environmentally friendly cross-laminated timber that would use Northern wood. The apprenticeship system is still a mess. Tenure reform was a disaster. There is no sign she understands how serious these failures were for Northern Ontario.
Every columnist in Ontario is giving Wynne advice right now. Northern columnists should be offering advice to Northern MPPs instead.
The advice should be simple. One, recognize that Wynne doesn’t understand that the North has a different economy, population, geology, biology and history. Keep repeating the obvious until every member of the legislature understands it.
Two, tell Wynne the truth: many Northerners do want to secede. They are sick of having decisions about the North made in the south. MPPs who can’t tell the truth should retire now.
Three, make sure that Wynne knows that Northerners like southern Ontario. She may have trouble with the rural south, but Northerners will support her if she wants to focus on the enormous issues of Toronto and the rest of the Ottawa-Windsor corridor. That’s where the people are, that’s where the opportunities are.
Four, make sure she knows she can only get Northern support by giving the North real regional autonomy. The way to keep Northerners from talking about leaving is to give Northerners the power to make their own decisions. Empty gestures like meetings will just annoy Northerners.
For now, let’s give Ms. Wynne the benefit of the doubt. There may be some real ideas behind the empty gestures she has made so far. Wynne has missed the mark once already. It will be hard for her to rethink her position. She is going to be very, very busy.
That’s why it is up to our Northern MPPs, not Wynne, to get regional government on the table.