It was a little more than a year ago I first floated the idea of a new regional government for Northern Ontario. The occasion was the spring 2005 meeting of the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities. There was a lot of interest at the meeting, but not much happened as a result.
A few months later, the Northeast Superior Mayors Group (Chapleau, Dubreuilville, White River, Wawa, Manitowadge, and Hornepayne) asked me to join them for one of their meetings.
As with most of Ontario’s forestry communities, they are being hammered to death by the cutbacks in the forestry sector and feel isolated and abandoned by senior levels of government. They wondered, if I was so smart, what would I do?
I told them I would forget about waiting for the senior levels of government to help them out. They needed to take their own action, pay their own bills and hire their own advisers to help look into the future.
The reality is that if you can’t go to the senior levels of government with the solution, you get sent to the “lost and unfound” department. The province is not equipped to plan. It is equipped to administer and to respond to crisis. It is up to local municipalities to broaden their job description if they wish to survive.
That is exactly what these municipalities did. They hired David Robinson, through the Institute of Northern Ontario Research and Development at Laurentian University, and set about considering their future. It took six municipalities less than six weeks to consider a proposal and pass funding support.
No grant applications. No time spent lobbying in support of a grant application or changing the application to fit the mandate of a funding program. Just a quick decision. A miracle.
I have no idea if these municipalities can rescue themselves from depressed markets and misguided forestry policies. I do know they are going to try.
Buoyed by this modest step forward, I dragged out the regional government idea recently in Thunder Bay where I was asked to speak to a group called the Adjustment Action Summit. This was put together by the North Superior Training Boards, in response to the decimation of northwestern Ontario communities, as a result of the depression in the forestry industry. The idea of a regional government is neither new nor controversial in northwestern Ontario. They are well organized and already think like they are in charge anyway.
The idea for this government is really quite simple.
Northern Ontario is a Third World economy with little responsibility for anything that matters in the public sector. We are politically unimportant and our needs, experiences and issues are quite different than southern Ontario. We must have an active immigration policy; an independent energy policy ; and change our culture from making recommendations to making decisions and being responsible for outcomes.
We are starved. We have no serious stake in the wealth of our resources. When things are good, the profits go elsewhere, and when they are bad, we are laid off. The recent stunning ineptitude of the government (both provincial and federal) around the sale of Inco and Falconbridge is positive proof of the disconnect between our interests and the disinterest of senior levels of government.
We need to impact on our educational system, so we can slowly move from rape and pillage to value-added and esteem for our resources.
We need a new tax regime. This one doesn’t work.
As one of the newspapers said the other day this all seems a little “far fetched”. Of course, it is far fetched. Everything is far fetched, until you fetch it. Then it just seems normal. I don’t think it looked that far fetched to the mayors of northwestern Ontario watching the moving vans leave town with no prospect of replacing the taxes or the energy of those people.
Michael Atkins is president of Laurentian Media and can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is reprinted from the November edition of Northern Ontario Business.