Ontario’s Provincial Election and the North: What Is the Issue? – by Livio Di Matteo (September 9, 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/

“Indeed, the most innovative set of Northern policies ever
proposed in my living memory was the Peterson government of
the 1980s which set forth three planks: the Northern Ontario
Heritage Fund, Northern Health Travel Grants and a program
of decentralization of provincial government offices to the
north.  Since then, there has really not been articulated
any similar set of innovative strategic and concrete
nitiatives for the North.” (Livio Di Matteo, Sept/9/2011)

As the provincial election campaign begins, undoubtedly the need to articulate northern issues will be an important one.  The conventional wisdom would probably argue that the most important issues are jobs and the economy, followed by health care.  A glance at the “northern platforms” of the three parties certainly would suggest that the economy is an important focus and there are indeed some similarities across the three main parties when it comes to the economy.

The New Democratic Party argues the North has been ignored by the provincial government and is pledging “respect for the North. ”  Its northern policy wants to hire more doctors for under-serviced communities, remove the HST from home heating and electric bills, cap gas prices, create a Northern Ontario legislative committee to address Northern issues and change laws so mining companies must process their raw materials in the province (incidentally, something similar was done a long time ago in Ontario for logs harvested on Crown lands under the rubric of the Manufacturing Condition). 

The NDP is also promising to repeal the Far North Act.  Aspects of the NDP platform are quite similar to what the Conservatives are proposing with respect to the removal of the HST and the repeal of the Far North Act.  However, one suspects the Conservative pledge to scrap the Far North Act is probably more robust than the New Democrat’s.  As well, both the Conservatives and the NDP have proposed various resource revenue retention schemes for the region, which are attractive given the anticipated mining development in the Ring of Fire.

As for the Liberals, their northern Ontario election platform is really summarized by the Northern Growth Plan which to date has promised a Northern Policy Institute (which has yet to appear but there are still weeks to go in the election campaign which may generate another promise) as well as endless future consultations and planning sessions.   No doubt, the legislative committee to address northern issues proposed by the NDP will find itself quite at home with this aspect of the Growth Plan. 

The more practical aspects of the Liberal northern policy involves announcements of government dollars for construction, roads and health care facilities and millions of dollars have been dispensed in the run up to the election.  When it comes to short-term cash dispensation, the Liberals are certainly not “ignoring” the North.  In a sense, the Liberals have also not ignored the North when it comes to energy legislation or the Far North Act or the reform of the mining act or forest tenure.

None of these election platform items seems particularly innovative.  Indeed, the most innovative set of Northern policies ever proposed in my living memory was the Peterson government of the 1980s which set forth three planks: the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, Northern Health Travel Grants and a program of decentralization of provincial government offices to the north. 

Since then, there has really not been articulated any similar set of innovative strategic and concrete initiatives for the North.  And despite endless consultations, some of the more important strategic decisions made affecting the North’s long-term development have actually been done without much consultation and in the face of substantial opposition – such as the Far North Act.

All three parties have conveniently side stepped the fundamental policy question when it comes to Northern Ontario.  How much responsibility should the North have when it comes to decision making in the region.  This is more than a simplistic “who owns the North” or “should the North separate from Ontario” type of question.  The north is part of Ontario and Ontario is owned by all of its citizens.  However, it is a legitimate question to ask whether more responsibility for decision-making should be devolved to the north especially when it comes to regional economic development, energy and the land base.

The Liberals have already given their answer given their treatment of the north in the Far North Act.  The Liberals believe the North should be consulted if necessary but not necessarily consulted with the ultimate decision-making power resting with Queen’s Park.  Would the NDP or the Conservatives actually be any different?  Would they devolve any significant decision-making powers in the economic sphere to regional northern governments or First Nations?  Based on what has been revealed in the NDP platform regarding creating a “northern legislative committee” and the Conservative platform that essentially promises “a strong voice” there is nothing yet to differentiate these two parties from the Liberals when it comes to actual respect for the north.

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