The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario. This editorial was published on June 29, 2010.
LEO Bernier was a big man from a little town who emerged as the first home-grown northern politician to genuinely matter in Ontario government. A senior cabinet minister in the sturdy Tory government of Bill Davis, Bernier saw to it that Northern Ontario finally got noticed in provincial affairs. It is his lasting legacy and one that successive governments have maintained, if not always honoured in full.
First elected in 1966 to represent Kenora under John Robarts, he worked to equalize northern services and opportunities with southern standards, but never thought that he had to move south to accomplish it. Born in Sioux Lookout and raised largely in Ear Falls, he settled into Hudson, a town of 600 where the family business became its mainstay. It was there that he continued to live until his death Monday at 81.
Fittingly, Bernier entered politics after a succession of frustrating trips to Queen’s Park lobbying on behalf of his home town. “I always came back from Toronto downhearted,” he told The Chronicle-Journal for a look back at his career in 1999. “I saw the lack of concern and the lack of sympathy for the North.”
When Davis succeeded Robarts as premier in 1971, Bernier was enjoying a string of increasingly successful elections which peaked in 1985 with his biggest-ever majority and the second-highest number of votes in the entire province. By this time, he’d earned the unofficial title, Emperor of the North.
Davis appointed Bernier as his Minister of Mines and a year later gave him additional responsibilities as Minister of Lands and Forests. Soon after, his portfolios were restructured as the Ministry of Natural Resources.
It was during this time that Bernier selected amethyst, the North’s own purple gemstone, as Ontario’s official mineral.
Bernier always said his greatest honour was being asked by Davis to establish and head the new Ministry of Northern Affairs in 1977, intended to focus permanent attention on this region and, by extension, formalize Bernier’s vision for equal recognition of the North.
By contrast, he maintained that his worst days in government concerned the mercury poisoning of the English Wabigoon river system by the former Reed Paper mill in Dryden. It rendered the main fish diet of area reserves inedible – the government provided bands with freezers and for years flew in clean fish to fill them – and caused widespread illness at Grassy Narrows and Whitedog for which the government paid millions in compensation.
In 1987, after a 21-year career at Queen’s Park, and with the Conservatives under Larry Grossman in opposition, Bernier announced he’d had enough. It was “time for a change,” he said, though within months he’d been appointed to head FedNor, the federal government’s new economic development agency for Northern Ontario.
He had already been the subject of a Northwestern Ontario Associated Chambers of Commerce resolution to encourage his appointment to the Senate.
Bernier’s stature throughout Ontario remained intact long after his glory days in government. He kept active in the Progressive Conservative party (he supported John Tory’s successful leadership bid in 2004), served as chair of the Boreal West Round Table in the 1990s, and his counsel was regularly sought by decision makers in need of a knowledgeable northern perspective. Twelve years after his retirement, 300 people trooped to Hudson for the 50th anniversary of Leo and Marjory.