Thinking About the Ontario North: Too Many Planners or Too Many Plans? – by Livio Di Matteo

Livio Di Matteo is Professor of Economics at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario.  Visit his new Economics Blog “Northern Economist” at http://ldimatte.shawwebspace.ca/

The process of Northern Ontario economic development has recently taken an even more convoluted turn given what seems to be a proliferation of task forces, steering committees and summits in the wake of the release of the Northern Growth Plan and the recent provincial budget.  There has been a call for the establishment of “pilot economic development planning areas” in Northern Ontario and regional leaders here in the Northwest decided that there needed to be another group to steer this process and formed the Joint Task Force (JTF) on Northwestern Ontario Economic Development Planning. 

The JTF (not to be confused with JTF2 which is the Canadian Armed Forces Special Operations Force) is to play a lead role in developing a proposed model and implementation plan for regional economic planning in northwestern Ontario.

The JTF joins the Northern Ontario Development Network (NODN), the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA), the City of Thunder Bay (CTB), Common Voice Northwest (CVNW) and the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission (CEDC) together to begin a process with counterparts in Northeastern Ontario who no doubt also have a large number of organizations with confusing acronyms.  In addition, The Ministry of Northern Development and Mines (MNDM) is establishing a multi-stakeholder Northern Advisory Committee (NAC) that will provide input into the establishment of regional economic development planning zones.  The NAC will work with JTF and the Northeast Pilot Implementation Team (NPIT) to develop regional planning models as well as provide advice on the Northern Growth Plan.

All of these groups will come together for summits to be held in Thunder Bay, June 13-14 and Sudbury June 15-16 to lay the groundwork for best practices in economic planning. According to NOMA Vice President Iain Angus (who is also Chair of JTF and a Councilor-at-Large for CTB) “We are working hard to make sure this is not just another ‘Think North’ “ and that “It is imperative that we leave the Summit with a clear indication as to what the Northwest wants the Pilot Project to look like.”  On the other hand, a memorandum to Northern Ontario partners and stakeholders from the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines (MNDM) dated May 20th, 2011 invites everyone to register for the “much anticipated Think North II Regional Conference” that is designed to “put great ideas into action with workshops designed to help shape two pilot regional economic development planning areas…in the northeast…the northwest.” 

Perhaps there are some aspects of the role of the summit that still need to be ironed out between MNDM and JTF.   Incidentally, the great ideas for Think North II will be coming from keynote speakers being brought in from Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand and Alaska.  For Think North I in 2009, the speakers came from the United States, British Columbia, Australia and Finland.  Too bad they are not bringing in a speaker from Quebec who can talk about the 2.1 billion dollars that is planned to be invested in Quebec’s North under their Plan Nord.

What is one to make of all this?  Let us leave aside the issue of whether you can actually have government officially plan economic development, something that some feel was settled with the fall of the Berlin Wall.  After all, economic development requires the private sector to take a major role albeit with the infrastructure support and institutional facilitation of government.  But what government will it be?

What is rather confusing about all this that they are going to discuss regional economic planning but there is currently no regional institutional infrastructure within which to plan.  How do you plan regionally without the tools to implement anything regionally?  Aside from a perpetually simmering alphabet soup of groups, there is no regional framework for implementation of regional decisions.  Everything is currently centralized at Queen’s Park and implemented via the provincial government and its ministries.

For example, how do we regionally plan land use policy to foster economic development when the provincial government essentially makes those decisions for us as recently witnessed with the Far North Act or the forest tenure reforms?  Is the provincial government planning to bring about regional government to deal with economic development as a follow-up to these planning meetings?  JTF says local decision-making is one of its priorities for regional economic planning. 

The best you can decipher from MNDM is that “We look forward to working with the NAC, local implementation teams and other interested northern groups to shape an approach to regional economic development planning that is reflective and responsive to the circumstances of Northern Ontario.” Local decision making versus shaping an approach – that seems to be two vastly different points of view but then the confusion is understandable given the plethora of plans and planning groups.  Where is a common voice when you need it?

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