Funding Mining Innovation in Toronto Instead of Sudbury Fuels Northern Ontario Resentment – Michael Atkins

Growth Not & Fed Not

How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Michael Atkins is president of Northern Life and sits on the Board of Governors of Laurentian University

“Growthnot” is a term for the much-hyped, once-upon-a-time Northern Ontario Growth Plan promoted by the province, which has been diligently crisscrossing the north interviewing, caucusing, conferencing, engaging with, and otherwise teasing northerners about a new beginning in economic planning for northern Ontario.

The plan would feature bringing together and aligning many ministries of the province to attack the disastrous economic conditions in the north. The first announcement of significance to affect the north came from the co-chair of the Northern Ontario Growth Plan, George Smitherman, who is also deputy premier of Ontario and Minister of Energy and Infrastructure. He announced an infrastructure investment in a mining innovation centre at the University of Toronto, which competes with the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI) at Laurentian University.

“FedNot” is a term for FedNor — the once proud and (some might say) cocky federal economic development organization that stands humiliated by its minister and mocked by Sudbury Liberal MPP Rick Bartolucci (we must credit him for the FedNot moniker) for refusing to invest in CEMI.

The decision by the federal government to deny funding to CEMI, which was all but invented by FedNor staff here in Sudbury — and tirelessly championed by FedNor executive director Louise Paquette — is a deliberate, calculated snub to the city of Sudbury, its provincial member Bartolucci (who belittled FedNor) and, most assuredly, Paquette (who championed it). The willingness to quickly invest in a competing institution in Toronto just adds incredulity to the inside story.

So why do we write about all this nonsense on the front page and weigh in on this topic, well after everybody has had their say and it is obvious nothing in this world is going to change Industry minister Tony Clement’s mind, or for that matter, Smitherman’s?

We write because, in our opinion, if we do not change the way we make decisions in and for northern Ontario, we are doomed to catastrophic economic failure that will be self-induced, and which has already taken root. We think there is only one man who is really going to make a difference to this trend line.

That person is Smitherman. The man may not have time to understand or care about the north — any more than most of you care about Sarnia — but he has guts and he has power. He just introduced Green legislation in this province that is groundbreaking and he has done it in record time and, no doubt, against a variety of obstacles. He can make change if he chooses to.

Our belief is that this infrastructure investment was seen as a relatively unimportant incremental top-up to an existing school, which nicely twined with a private sector commitment — and what harm could come of it? The problem is the same problem Ontario faces often. No one is thinking at the moment of opportunity. Our provincial planning is at best mediocre and the trigger points for most decisions are political, short-term and not strategic.

Northern Ontario is a resource economy. It has nothing in common economically with the rest of the province. It requires intellectual capital to add value. It requires influence over education, tax policy, energy pricing, natural resource policy and liberation from governance that is chaotic, competitive, and politically dysfunctional. This mining dust-up could be Exhibit A or, if you are counting, Exhibit Z, in a long history of stunning incompetence. In short, northern Ontario is an exploited third world economy, which has not benefited from the resources and wealth it has created, and suffers from the politically expedient and unbecoming welfare state mentality that brought forth GrowthNot and FedNot in the first place.

It needs to be said that Bartolucci has been a tireless supporter of Sudbury and has pried more money and grants for this city than any other representative in history.

Bartolucci loves Sudbury. His very success is probably why he was moved from the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines to the more neutral portfolio of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Bartolucci comes from a long line of Sudbury politicians of note, including Jim Gordon and Doug Frith, Floyd Laughren and Tom Davies.

The problem is that it is not good enough to leave a legacy of special project financings, although they are welcome and needed. The legacy that is most desperately needed is change in the governance model. You can rest assured that, if northern Ontario was a separate province, or if it was a regional government, or if some internal planning group in the province had some logical internal accountability in a province that respected the potential power and value of its mining cluster in Sudbury, it would not be building new buildings or fixing up old ones for a re-branded mining innovation centre in Toronto. It would be moving whatever activity was in that sector to the mining cluster, where it belonged, just the way the province moved the geological survey to Sudbury, many years ago.

We need look no further than the Ontario government’s very expensive recent economic report, “Ontario in the Creative Age,” by its most recent guru Richard Florida, to seek support for our point of view. The report states clearly “the concentration of people and industries is one of the most powerful of all economic forces.”

We have covered all of these issues in depth with our columnist Stan Sudol, who has written brilliantly about the need to consolidate educational efforts to compete in the world mining business at Laurentian because of the high cost of the technology and the low number of students involved. Three universities competing for this market (Queen’s, U of T and Laurentian) is silly. We invite you to go to our website, rethinkingnorthernontario.org, and click on Stan’s column.

Forgetting for the moment the disposition of the Federal Minister of Industry, the co-investment by the province is nothing short of bizarre. The local member was not consulted on this investment. The minister of Northern Development and Mines (Michael Gravelle) was wisely unavailable for the Toronto announcement (maybe he knew, maybe he didn’t) and has been in hiding ever since. Not a soul in Ontario’s only mining cluster was consulted.

This is why northern Ontario does not work in Ontario. Northern Ontario has no stake, no political influence and sadly, no capability to remedy the train wreck on the horizon — much of which has already happened. We survive by our whits, but it is more difficult every year.

Either Sudbury sees its future as an international mining cluster, or it doesn’t. There will be no help from the province unless you demand it. There is a choice. Cower in the corner praying for the next grant or demanding the respect that is due a cluster that is more respected in Argentina, South Africa and Australia than it is in its own province.

The subtitle for this story (How societies choose to succeed or fail) is taken from Jared Diamond’s best-seller “Collapse,” a book about the collapse of civilizations around the world. It is impossible not to see ourselves in that picture.

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