Making Change: A Northern Ontario Declaration – by Livio Di Matteo (Jun 10, 2011)

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/  

Next week’s summits in Thunder Bay and Sudbury still seem to be suffering from divergent points of opinion as to what their purpose is.  On the one hand, the province has billed it as a Think North II Summit which implies yet another consultation.  Northwestern leaders as embodied by the Joint Task Force (JTF) see it as a Regional Economic Planning Zone Pilot Project Summit and some of their background reports suggest they are looking for more devolution of decision making authority.  Perhaps the JTF is not making its point strongly enough because it is not being very assertive in its language. 

At the risk of coming across as yet another academic postulating from their ivory tower, let me suggest that perhaps at next week’s Think North II Summit in Thunder Bay there needs to be a change in thinking on the part of the region’s leaders.  Rather than enjoy a couple of days off from their day jobs savoring snacks and participating in yet another facilitated consultation that generates more reports as an input into yet another consultation, it is time for our political leaders to make a difference.   Rather than sit through yet another workshop whose questions have been designed by Queen’s Park, the participants to this conference should take a page out of history, find a tennis court to gather on, and make a Northern Declaration that:

The peoples of Northern Ontario, making common cause to ensure a better future for our children in this land we call home, have come together in partnership to speak and act with one voice.  We assert that Northern Ontario constitutes a distinct economic, social and geographic space within Ontario as embodied by its historic development.  We assert that Ontario’s North requires innovative institutional change that gives it the economic development tools to manage its own lands and forests, its energy costs, its transportation infrastructure and by extension, its people’s well being. We declare that such change requires the establishment of autonomous self-government institutions for the North within Ontario.  We pledge today to begin the work needed to bring about regional governance in the North, for the North, and by the peoples of North. We invite the Government of Ontario to join us in this new future.

This institutional change is not economic planning zones but autonomous regional government for the North within Ontario. Come out and say it.  At minimum, there should be established one government for the province’s Northwest and another for the Northeast reflecting the vast geographic differences of the North.  A regional government for the Northwest can begin its work by planning and implementing transportation infrastructure to access the Far North and the Ring of Fire, design a regional energy grid and more competitive electricity prices, stop treating Crown Lands as a scarce resource and opening more up to cottage development, and help invest in water treatment plants, schools and training facilities, and medical facilities in First Nation communities.

Functions to be devolved onto a northern regional government may include economic development, environment and energy, municipal affairs, natural resources, social services, transportation, culture and tourism.  Human capital investment such as health care and education can remain at the provincial level because of individual mobility and access concerns and the need for common standards but the case can also be made for regional administration of health and education because of distinct regional needs and conditions – particularly in the case of First Nations. 

Naturally, the transfer of these functions will be accompanied by the transfer of an appropriate own source revenue base. This can be done through the transfer of points from the Harmonized Sales Tax as well as the provincial income tax combined with resource rents.  Bringing about regional government and new institutions for the North that enable it to take control of its economic future would be the defining event of the 21st century for this region.  Our region’s political leaders can either continue to be supplicants at Queen’s Park, or they can assert their own vision.  An election year is the time to do it.  After decades of endless consultation, what is there to lose?  The worse that can happen is the province will say no and force them to sit through another consultation next year after the election.

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