Northern Ontario won’t return to business as usual any earlier than the rest of the province as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, Energy and Northern Development Minister Greg Rickford confirmed on Wednesday.
Rickford, who also holds the provincial government’s Indigenous affairs portfolio, was speaking to the concerns of Northern Ontario business owners during a May 6 webinar organized by the Northern Ontario Chambers of Commerce.
“Regionalizing this province, given its vastness, might intuitively sound like it makes sense,” Rickford said, reiterating a directive made last month by Premier Doug Ford.
“But in my view – and this is supported by the emerging health data that we’re seeing – it is in all of Ontario’s best interest to make best efforts to have one rule for coming out of this that fits all.”
His home riding of Kenora-Rainy River, which serves as a popular leisure area for vacationing Winipeggers, currently has zero recorded cases of COVID-19, Rickford noted by way of example.
But if the area were opened to travel, it would soon see an influx of visitors, and “COVID would be here,” he said.
With limited capabilities to treat COVID patients, including just four Level 2 ICU beds at the local hospital to serve a broad geographical area, an incursion of COVID cases could overwhelm local health-care capabilities, Rickford suggested.
“We have compelling reasons to come out slowly and cautiously that are different from other regions who either want more or less caution.”
Rickford was joined, briefly, by Sault Ste. Marie MPP Ross Romano, the minister of colleges and universities, and Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli, the minister of economic development, job creation and trade.
Though all three were on the docket for the event, which attracted more than 200 participants, Fedeli arrived late and left early, to participate in bookended announcements by the premier, while Romano departed early to attend another meeting.
That left Rickford to answer the bulk of the questions from concerned Northerners.
Primarily, chamber members wanted to know what the province would do to help northern businesses stay afloat.
Aside from some of the already announced relief packages, such as a 10 per cent income tax credit for eligible businesses, Rickford said the province would look at some additional help under the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. (NOHFC), including a tranche of funding specifically designed to help businesses through COVID-19.
“What we want to be is a backstop for places that other provincial and federal government (programs) did not cover,” Rickford said.
“What we don’t want is to have a redundant or, in certain instances, a stackable program for business.
“Resources are not infinite, so we want to make sure these are targetted and are serving their specific needs through programs they couldn’t otherwise get access to.”
That might include funding for areas of the service industry, which was previously not eligible for NOHFC funding.
The minister said there would also be extensions offered on the opening of projects already approved by the NOHFC, and loan repayment on NOHFC loans would be deferred between April 1 and June 30.
During his brief appearance, Romano did offer some insight into how post-secondary education might change following the pandemic, and how colleges and universities can better meet the needs of employers going forward.
Digital learning will likely figure more prominently, he suggested.
“We were already moving in the direction of digital learning, which positioned us very well to be prepared for the pandemic, but what we have learned through all of our areas is that’s a lot of other ways to do things,” Romano said.
“Embracing technology and, in the context of virtual learning within the post-secondary environment, we’ve been able to make some significant moves forward in that area, and we’ve seen a substantial benefit from it, and I think we’ll continue to see more of that as we move forward in the post-COVID world.”
He also floated the idea of introducing “micro-credentials,” or mini certificates or degrees specific to an area of learning that could take just 12 to 16 weeks to complete.
Micro-credentials will be less costly and less time-consuming than studying to complete a three- or four-year degree, Romano said.
And the idea of being able to rapidly retrain a workforce may now be more attractive to employers that had to quickly learn to pivot and retool during the pandemic, he said.
“So what would be great is if we could see more of our private sector look at ways to work together within institutions with their communities to develop programs together,” Romano said.
“The more we have those, the better it is for our students, the better it is for the organization.”
For northern entrepreneurs wondering about when they might be able to reopen, Fedeli directed them to the province’s COVID-19 page, where the province has outlined its framework for the staged reopening of the economy, along with sector-by-sector guidelines on how businesses should prepare to open safely.
If sector-specific guidelines appear on the list, “these are a great signal that your sector is going to be opening soon,” Fedeli said.