Who is responsible for the prosperity of Northern Ontario? The feds? Not likely. Northern Ontario is resource-based, and natural resources are a provincial matter. Constitutionally, the province is responsible for Northern Ontario’s development. Unfortunately, the province has been dithering for 25, so it’s time for new players and a new script.
So who will speak for Northern Ontario? We don’t have a political system to pick leaders to represent the North. We just send local representatives Queen’s Park, and the premier may put one or two in cabinet, but cabinet ministers don’t represent the North: they represent the government.
We have to depend on the political third string: the mayors and councils of Northern Ontario. Municipal politicians may have a lot of responsibility, but the province has all the power.
Northern municipal politicians have tried to represent the North. They have created the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA) the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) and Northern Ontario Large Urban Mayors (NOLUM). The Large Urban Mayors met with seven provincial members just last August. Three of the five have been replaced since then, so they may be starting fresh next August.
Representing the North to Cabinet is a very tough job for these shaky, competing federations. In terms of population, the North as a whole is in a group with Brampton, Mississauga, Ottawa, Peel, Middlesex, and Hamilton. Each of those cities or regions has a single voice representing it. Northern Ontario has a couple flash mobs.
Another problem is that NOMA, FONOM and NOLUM keep coming up with broad lists of goals for the province. The province already has goals. Michael Gravelle, the minister of northern development and mines, is from Thunder Bay-Superior North. Michael is responsible for “driving growth in Northern Ontario,” according to the mandate he was given by Premier Kathleen Wynne, and his goal is to “ensure that priorities for the North align with the objectives of the Northern Growth Plan.”
(Figure that last one out if you can.)
So what should the third string be doing? In my view, our Northern politicians should unite around one or two short-term, irresistible, strategic demands each year. Strategic demands are ones that shift power north.
For example, the province should be moving all boreal forestry training and research to Thunder Bay and the Sault. The province needs to do this if it is to have an internationally competitive boreal forestry sector. Most of the forest industry is in the North anyway, so why keep subsidizing southern universities when you could create a world-class program where the trees are? It would be cheaper for the province and would help drive innovation in the forestry sector.
A demand like this builds capacity in the North, brings students and money to the region, and, most importantly, it is a small, strategic, winnable demand. All the province has to do is buy off a couple of southern universities by funding a new program that they really want. Bingo! Better North, better south!
Another, similar project is moving the province’s mining research mining engineering and geology to Sudbury where there is already a world-class cluster of mining education and research. Why? Because the province can afford one high-powered centre for mining or three also-rans. Because the programs at Queen’s and Toronto are in decline anyway. Because it makes sense to stop sucking funds for mining training and research out of the province’s mining regions.
To make this approach work, every politician in the North has to put the same pan-Northern issue on her crib card each year. The crib card is the business card-sized note with three points that an effective politician raises every time she talks to a provincial of federal official. The crib card should have one point from the local council, one point from the politician, and one pan-Northern strategic goal.
This is a formula for mind control. If every council member and mayor, and every municipal employee were to raise the same issue for a year, and if they also made the point to the press consistently for a year, they could control the thinking of senior government. They would build the North’s needs one crib card at a time.