Southern Ontario overlooks Northern Ontario at its peril

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January 8, 2013

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TORONTO, ON, Jan. 8, 2013/ Troy Media/ – Most of Ontario’s landmass is in the north; most of its people are in the south.

Northern Ontarians often find this frustrating. Southern Ontarians seldom think about the north at all.

There isn’t even agreement as to where ‘Northern Ontario’ begins. Some people argue that anywhere the Canadian Shield can be seen should be thought of as ‘The North’. Others hold to a particular set of municipalities, or the dividing line of a highway (typically, Highway 17 as it goes from North Bay westward to Sault-Ste-Marie).

Ask people in Toronto what they know about Northern Ontario. You will get answers like ‘they’ve got lots of mines, don’t they?’, ‘isn’t that mostly logging country?’, ‘isn’t that mostly Indian reserves?’ – and most commonly ‘gee, I dunno’.

Northern Ontario, to me (along with many others), has mostly been a fly-over experience. Half of the time spent flying from Toronto to Vancouver is spent getting out of Ontario – and all but the first 20 to 30 minutes are spent flying over ‘the North’.

From the air, it appears to be what the Kingston, Ontario musical comedy trio the Arrogant Worms sing about in their eponymous song: ‘We’ve got rocks and trees, and trees and rocks . . . and water.’

From the ground, Northern Ontario is a place of small communities – some doing all right, others just hanging on – where far too many of the decisions that matter for the future are made far away by people who don’t have to live with the consequences.

Thirty new seats are being added to Federal Parliament. Fifteen of those will go to Ontario. Yet, as the commission proposing new riding boundaries entered into public consultation, the commissioners admitted that special consideration had to be given to preserving the North’s existing seats: true equality of representation would see Northern Ontario lose two MPs to the south.

The North is physically large: the Kenora riding is roughly the size of Germany and Timmins-James Bay equivalent to the United Kingdom. However, each riding only contains about 45,000 to 60,000 electors so this size does not mean a strong voice at either Queens Park or Ottawa.

The region is blessed with mineral deposits, and logging activity. But the communities of the region derive decreasing benefit from their natural bounty. Heavy equipment and automation have reduced crew sizes and fewer raw materials are processed locally. Local businesses do not thrive when the work is done elsewhere.

Transportation in the region remains difficult. In the early 1900s, the federal government created the National Transcontinental Railway (now part of Canadian National) to run from Quebec City to Winnipeg and across Northern Ontario. Many communities grew up along the main line, only to wither as passenger rail service and local freight dried up. The last segment of the Trans-Canada Highway to be built was the section through Northern Ontario: before 1962, Canadians generally had to drive from east to west through the United States.

The transportation that exists in the north exists to support enterprise – aNd enterprise often comes first. So it will be with reserves that want to follow in the footsteps of, say, the Osoyoos First Nation of B.C. and build enterprises that sustain their people in growing prosperity.

And prosperity is needed, given what has been heard recently about conditions on First Nations reserves in the north, thanks to Attawapiskat (both the winter of 2011-12’s living conditions and 2012-13’s hunger strike by the community’s Chief, Theresa Spence). At least Attawapiskat has leased a mining concession to help support itself. Others have less. Some reserves have taken the initiative to better their own conditions rather than wait for ‘the Crown’ or ‘the Department’ (of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development) to do it for them.

Thunder Bay, the region’s main city, has capitalized on its university and hospitals (it is the home of Canada’s first new medical school in a generation) to replace its former shipping-based economy. These educational and medical services are also helping keep more Northern Ontarians in the region (if not in their birth communities).

Northern Ontario is too large to truly know – at best one knows portions of it. But, it is likely to be a key part of this province’s economic future, and deserves more consideration that it usually gets, if only to preserve and extend this beautiful ‘place apart’.

Troy Media Syndicated Columnist Bruce Stewart is a management consultant located in Toronto.

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