Somewhere out there, just ahead of the blackflies, is a small group of people across northern Ontario knocking on doors looking to sign up enough people to bring the Northern Ontario Heritage Party (NOHP) back to life.
If you have any gray hair at all you will remember Ed Deibel tried to win some seats with the same party and many of the same ideas some 35 years ago.
His effort brought no seats, but it did have an impact. Back then the objective was to separate provincial status. The current objective seems less clear.
It is no accident the province currently administers a $100-million investment fund called the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC). You can thank Ed.
It is no accident the province of Ontario set up the original Ministry of Northern Affairs and Development in the shadow of the Heritage Party so many years ago and appointed the first minster, Leo Bernier, from Hudson, just down the road from Sioux Lookout. Leo was a staple on the rubber chicken circuit in northern Ontario for years. He had a great passion for the North, but was ineffective when it came to actually getting anything done. He had no clout.
It is no accident that for the first time in anyone’s memory, Ontario’s budget featured prominent references to Northern Ontario, particularly the “Ring of Fire,” and a three-year reduction in power rates. With the forest industry in the north on its knees, and our two major mining companies now foreign-owned with the blessing of the province (one in Sudbury running the longest strike in the community’s’ history and the other closing a modern smelter in Timmins and moving the business to Quebec) the natives are restless and fed up and the government knows it.
With northern television stations pretty much dismantled and without a public affairs show in sight, it is the provincially-owned TVO that has done the most to animate this discontent. The Agenda, hosted by Steve Paikin on TVO, has uncompromisingly outlined the issues. Provincial politicians may not know much about northern Ontario, but they watch Steve Paikin. So what about the NOHP? The start-up looks pretty rudimentary, but that is to be expected. You can find them at www.nohp.ca.
It will not be an easy road for the Heritage Party for a number of reasons.
The first of course is money, the second will be the kind of talent the party will or will not attract and the third, and most important, is the piñata question. Piñata is shorthand for the political process in northern Ontario which has most politicians and many business people lined up for a grant or a contract (the FedNor and NOHF sweepstakes) with the government or a major company necessitating a degree of meekness that precludes serious political debate.
That’s how politics is played in northern Ontario. Most politicians and many business people are beholden to the government for a grant or a license or something and it keeps a lid on the official whining and complaining and will keep most mayors dancing carefully around the issue of this political party.
None will disagree with most of its assertions, but few will risk their political capital.
The next year or so will see the provincial government take a bigger interest in northern Ontario than it has in a long time. It’s simple. The next election will be close. Northern seats are important again. A new party could disproportionately affect the Liberals and New Democrats who own northern Ontario. They both need every seat they can get up here.
Northern Ontario is a resource economy. It is different. It is not being managed well. Northern Ontario needs influence over taxation, energy, education, trade, economic policy (tourism, forestry, mining, the environment, foreign ownership). That influence will not be granted unless you demand it.
One way to do it is to have a regional political party. Another is to have a regional government with enhanced responsibility. Another is to have the kind of enlightened governance we find in the Nordic countries. Another is to demand a separate province.
What isn’t acceptable is the status quo.
Michael Atkins is the president of Northern Life.