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The Capital 'N' and the Great Eraser

How many teachers in Northern Ontario tell their students that the name of the region is spelled with a capital "N?" It isn't a trivial question. If teachers think "northern Ontario" is the correct spelling they are giving their students a signal.
Dr. David Robinson
How many teachers in Northern Ontario tell their students that the name of the region is spelled with a capital "N?" It isn't a trivial question. If teachers think "northern Ontario" is the correct spelling they are giving their students a signal. Northern Ontario only exists from the point of view of the south.

That's what Patti Tasko, the senior supervising editor with Canadian Press (based in Toronto) decided in 1999 when she revised the Canadian Press Stylebook. Northern Ontario is not a place with a name – it is a general area defined by being north of Toronto.

In doing that she abolished the memory of a region with a distinct history. She made the notion of Northern self-government disappear for every Canadian Press (CP) reporter. She told us that Southern Ontario has gone a long way toward completely forgetting Northern Ontario.

Patti Tasko isn't the only one working to make Northern Ontario disappear.

The Northern Growth Plan carefully erased any notion that Northern power should supply Northern businesses. George Smitherman, the most powerful minister in cabinet, was in charge of getting power for southern Ontario.

Even before the plan began George was committed to expanding the power transmission lines to the south. We can't pretend that the Minister of Northern Development and Mines had one-tenth the influence George had.

But Patti and George can't make Northern Ontario disappear without help. They need the help of the Great Eraser. The Great Eraser is one of our largest employers, with thousands of professionals working to prevent Northern Ontario from ever knowing itself. The Great Eraser is the public school system.

The public school system makes sure that no Northern student grows up reading the poets and writers of Northern Ontario. The Great Eraser makes sure that children in forestry towns can't recognize a single Northern tree. The Great Eraser works constantly to make sure young people leave the North by making sure they don't know the North.

Counsellors working for the Great Eraser encourage high school students to pursue university education. A survey of high school students in a Northern Ontario town found almost no interest in the resource-based or manufacturing industries. Not one expressed an interest in creating a business. University education is a good thing, but most private sector jobs in Northern Ontario require either high school, apprenticeship, or on-the-job training. Education and health are the only sectors that want most of their employees to have a university degree. The Great Eraser is systematically setting kids up so they have to leave.

It is also undermining the private economy. For years Northern businesses have been reporting shortages of trades and technicians. They can't recruit the workers they need, but schools prepare students to head south for jobs.

If Northern Ontario with a capital "N" does not exist in the curriculum it won't exist in the minds of Northern students. They will graduate knowing more of Las Vegas than their own communities.

It is quite remarkable how colonial the Northern school system looks. In every colonial region the schools ignore the local culture and undermine the local economy. In every colony the education system provides a ticket to a government job or a way out of the country. In every colonial school the curriculum comes from outside and the teachers think the imported curriculum is exactly what the kids need.

We all know that residential schools were set up to destroy native culture. We don't seem to notice that public and separate schools prevent a Northern culture from developing. Is murdering a culture really worse than spending a hundred years aborting one?

The capital "N" in the first line is not the real issue. Very few students ever mention Northern Ontario in school, so very few teachers get to correct their spelling.

So here is a modest proposal for all our Northern school boards. Let's have every student write a little essay about Northern Ontario every year. Let's insist that every student use a capital "N" when they write "Northern Ontario".

It is easy to do, but it could keep us from disappearing. It could turn the Great Eraser into an institution that actually supports Northern Development.

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