By Ian Ross
It came as no big surprise to Joe Sniezek when Statistics Canada released census figures in March indicating that Northern Ontario lost 40,000 people over a five-year period.
The City of Sault Ste. Marie’s long-range planner warned city council three years ago in a lot levy report, that the municipality’s overall tax base was steadily shrinking due to out-migration.
But city politicians turned a blind eye to it, Sniezek says.
In Sniezek’s words, he was “blasted” by then-Mayor Steve Butland for being the bearer of bad news. Too negative, he was told. Next item, please.
“It was this idea then that we can’t have negative news. But my job isn’t to give you negative or positive, my job is to interpret the numbers.”
The latest census figures reveals there are 5,488 fewer Sault residents since the last count in 1996, a trend mirrored in almost every city, town and small municipality in the north. It showed up in the Sault’s overall municipal assessment last year with a four per cent drop resulting in taxes being raised by that amount just to maintain existing services.
On a yearly basis, Sniezek points out, the Sault and Algoma district last experienced positive growth from 1988 to 1991 about the same time the David Peterson government’s Northern Ontario relocation program shifted the Ontario Lottery Corporation headquarters to the Sault.
Since then 112 jobs have been transferred back to Toronto, and further cutbacks have taken place at Algoma Steel, Algoma Central Railway, the Ministry of Natural Resources and handfuls of jobs here and there with many public and private employers.
“I think we’ve lost about 1,000 government-sector jobs over five years,” he says.
The last time a census period showed inward migration in the Sault area was between 1966 and 1971. And there appear to be no signs the trend will reverse itself, he says.
“When you look at the Northern Ontario economy as a whole, it is disconnected from the south in 1961. That’s when our economic growth rate started to slow and the province continued to grow.”
With the North’s continued reliance on its natural resource-based economy and with most basic commodity prices in a long-term decline, he says, it is only natural that companies should seek greater operating efficiencies, eliminate jobs, and that the resulting multiplier effect eventually flows throughout the economy.
Sniezek says it simply underscores the need for senior government to devise a new policy to redistribute wealth and jobs across Ontario, either through a northern tax incentive program or a concerted government-led effort to encourage major corporations to move beyond the 401 corridor.
It is a cause taken up by Sault Mayor John Rowswell who wants action on the tax incentive plan he tabled at a northeastern mayors conference in Sudbury last fall.
His council is calling for a 50 per cent corporate tax reduction for northern businesses, plus a two per cent cut to provincial sales tax.
The economic development corporation is concentrating on new sector development based on information technology, knowledge-based industry and value-added opportunities in wood and steel products.
It is among 33 ongoing projects listed in the city’s growth mandate strategy scheduled to become reality within the next three to five years.
The arrival of Multi-Channel Communications Inc. and its launch of an e-commerce venture set for this summer is the first phase in building the city’s smart park concept.
A 30,000-square-foot building will be the future Web customer-service home for TELUS and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.
The efforts to successfully restructure Algoma Steel and keep the cash-strapped Searchmont ski resort operating this winter came as a huge relief to the community and the EDC who are now methodically forging ahead with plans to open up new industrial land, particularly heavy and light industrial with rail connections.
Negotiations are underway with Algoma Steel to acquire a large acreage of vacant industrial land west of the plant and applications are going forward to FedNor and heritage fund to run services into that property.