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Time for Northerners to take charge

The Ministry of Finance has produced the real Northern Growth Plan Ontario. It is called the “Ontario Population Projections Update.” This is the document that will direct most planning decisions for the province.

The Ministry of Finance has produced the real Northern Growth Plan Ontario. It is called the “Ontario Population Projections Update.” This is the document that will direct most planning decisions for the province.

In the medium-growth scenario, Ontario will add almost 4.4 million people by July 1, 2036. That is almost six Northern Ontarios.

Most of the new voters will go to the GTA. Most will be immigrants who know nothing about Northern Ontario and couldn't care less. In the high-growth scenario the province adds 6.5 million people. That is twice the current population of Alberta and more than 46 Prince Edward Islands.

The graph for Northern Ontario’s population, on the other hand, looks like a dead worm. Dead flat. The population share of Northern Ontario will fall

to 4.3 per cent if we don’t count Parry Sound in the North. By 2036 it will be a suburb of Barrie.

Northern Ontario currently has eight seats in the provincial Legislature. We should have six. We had to argue vehemently against the basic democratic principle of rep-by-pop to get eight. By 2035, we will deserve only four.

Northern Ontario has a token presence in the provincial Legislature. Potentially the third largest province in the country by area and the ninth largest by population (out of 11), Northern Ontario resorts to begging to have the rules of democracy bent just so they pretend to have a say.

Begging for more representation in the government of southern Ontario is simply silly. The goal of any politically aware Northern politician should be to develop a legitimate Northern deliberative body. Until Northern Ontario has a legitimate way to make decisions for itself, it doesn’t really matter how few or how fewer representatives we have in Queen's Park.

Be very clear. Queen’s Park will not help. The provincial political parties will not help. The only people who can improve governance in Northern Ontario are Northerners. And the truth is, Northerners don’t seem to be up to the job.

We know the rules of engagement. Upper Canada stole the region from the Indians fair and square. The province now owns the resources. Companies

develop them. Neither is interested in leaving revenues in the North. We simply don’t have the political power to change that.

It is time for Northerners to come up with a different strategy. It's time for a cultural strategy. The rules of engagement don’t stop us from building the Northern identity. Sooner or later a strong Northern identity will give us a strong political voice.

Northerners think they are different, but they don’t have a distinctive architecture or cuisine, or theatre or artistic style. They don’t teach their kids Northern history or Northern poetry, they don’t keep statistics on the Northern economy. They have utterly failed to build a pan-Northern political organization.

Northerners do play the identity card, but mainly in ways that divide the North. Catholics run their own schools, francophones run their own schools, First Nations are beginning to run their own schools. As they struggle to maintain their own cultural identities, these sub-communities sabotage themselves because none are strong enough to change the game.

Municipal and city councils are another major political force in the North. They tend to fan inter-community jealousies. As the most restricted and local form of government, they are not supposed to represent the region as a whole, even though they try from time to time. Existing power structures keep Northerners divided.

A house divided against itself cannot stand, said Abraham Lincoln. Northern Ontario will grow slower than a dead worm until Northerners start to act as a team. That will take real, inspired leadership across the region. It could take a whole generation just to break down sectarian divisions in the North and generate real pride and co-operation. In the end, it is the only strategy that will work.

Community identity is always constructed, and it always has a political purpose. Northern Ontario matters less and less to the south. It is time we make it matter to the North.