Another plan for the North [Ontario] – by Livio Di Matteo (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal, March 12, 2011)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal  is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario. This opinion piece was originally published on March 12, 2011.

Livio Di Matteo is a professor of economics at Lakehead University. Visit his Northern Economist Blog at ldimatte.shawwebspace.ca.

“What is more telling of this plan is what is not specifically mentioned: nothing on tax
incentive zones, nothing on a regional energy grid, nothing on regional government,
nothing on ever completely four-laning the Trans-Canada Highway.”
(Livio Di Matteo, March 12, 2011)

The release of the Northern Growth Plan is the latest installment in a long list of plans for Northern Ontario’s economic development stretching back now almost half-a-century.

The Northern Growth Plan joins an esteemed list of contributions that include the Rosehart Report (2008), Embracing the Future (2002) and my personal favourite — Design for Development — which was released in the 1970s — and confused many people about what the provincial government actually had in mind for the North given its designation of Thunder Bay and Sudbury as “primate” growth centers.

The current plan is again the result of many years of work and consultation and is “a call to action and a roadmap for change” organized to provide policy direction for growth around six principles:
• a globally competitive economy,
• education and skills for a knowledge economy,
• aboriginal partnership,
• networks of social, transport and communications infrastructure,
• sustainable environment, and
• innovative partnerships to maximize resource potential.

Really, who can argue with any of that? We all want a diversified economy, people who are healthy and educated, vibrant communities and a clean environment.

What the provincial government might wish to explain is why all this is a plan that is “bold and visionary, while at the same time realistic and sustainable?” What is so bold and visionary about expecting what other parts of the province have had for decades?

The plan has a detailed checklist for short-, medium- and long-term actions that will require implementation and of course more planning including regional plans within the region. This is again more or less what we expect of provincial plans for Northern Ontario given a literature search of past plans.

What is more telling of this plan is what is not specifically mentioned: nothing on tax incentive zones, nothing on a regional energy grid, nothing on regional government, nothing on ever completely four-laning the Trans-Canada Highway.

The Northern Policy Institute (NPI) was the one positive and tangible contribution of the plan, given that they are going to back it up with $5 million. However, on its own, it almost seems devalued given that there was nothing specific on energy prices, regional government or upgrading of the road infrastructure or indeed anything else. Moreover, the mandate of the institute now seems to be not so much independent policy research but monitoring implementation of the plan.

As well, the NPI was originally proposed in 2006 and it is now 2011 — five years later. Having brought the institute into existence a couple of years sooner might have generated some real meat for the Growth Plan and put us further ahead in regional policy development. Indeed, having addressed electricity prices a little sooner could have saved some of the mills and put the region a little further ahead in terms of employment, too.

For whatever reason, the provincial government takes a very long time to address concerns in this region. The pattern is one of constant lobbying and reiteration of the same concerns over and over again, a multitude of plans, and then eventually after a number of years a small amount of movement on a point or two.

That is not to say that there is no progress, but it just takes a lot longer than it does in southern Ontario. Case in point: $5 million to fund the Mowat Policy Institute at the University of Toronto was provided by the provincial government some time ago.

For us in the North it appears that we need to spend a lifetime lobbying for small incremental changes and improvements, and this can wear out the hardiest of individuals. Is it really any surprise that so many of us just decide to migrate out of the region?

The process of getting the provincial government to facilitate change and improvement in the North is a process spanning generations — much like the building of a medieval cathedral. However, the end result for the medieval peasants and burghers who spent 50 to 100 years labouring was a magnificent structure with spires soaring to touch the face of God. Until demonstrated otherwise, all we have is yet another plan.

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