What is holding Northern Ontario back? – by David Robinson (Northern Ontario Business – February, 2012)

Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business  provides Canadians and international investors with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North.  

Dave Robinson is an economist with the Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development at Laurentian University. drobinson@laurentian.ca 

Premier Brad Wall is proud of Saskatchewan. The province is booming. Migration from other provinces is up 40 per cent —people are streaming in from places like Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta. The province is even planning a jobs mission to Ireland to recruit workers.

But here is a question. Is our premier proud of Northern Ontario? Is anyone proud? In fact, is there anyone to be proud?

Saskatchewan, with about 33 per cent more people than Northern Ontario, and with only 80 per cent of the area of Northern Ontario, is managed by 58 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). In efficient Northern Ontario, we make do with 10 MPPs. And 10 per cent of a premier.

But if Ontario is so efficient, why is Saskatchewan doing so well by comparison? Northern Ontario is a lot like Saskatchewan. Like Saskatchewan, we are a resource-based economy, but compared to Saskatchewan, we have quite a few strategic advantages.

For example, Saskatchewan is latitudinally challenged. The whole province lies north of almost everyone in Northern Ontario. A quarter of the province lies north of the most northerly point in Ontario. Saskatchewan is landlocked: Northern Ontario has ocean access on two coasts. Saskatchewan is also far from civilization. The province shares a southern border with exciting North Dakota. We share the Great Lakes with the rich and progressive American Midwest. We have easy access to markets in southern Ontario and the U.S. Eastern Seaboard – it is just 900 kilometres from Sudbury to New York or Boston, from Timmins to Chicago, or from Thunder Bay to Detroit. The same 900 kilometres from Regina will get you to the capitals of Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota.

If Northern Ontario has such advantages, why is Saskatchewan the darling of the financial press? Part of the story is just luck. Resources are hot and Saskatchewan has the hottest resources. Oil, potash and uranium are very much in demand and food prices are rising. Everything is going the right way for Saskatchewan.

But economists have begun to realize that resources alone don’t make a region rich. If they did, the resource-rich Congo would be on top of the world instead of number 137 and falling on the human development index. Singapore, Hong Kong and Denmark would be impoverished instead of numbers three, five and 19, respectively, on the GDP per capita lists.

Where Saskatchewan is beating Northern Ontario is in creating and holding talent. Saskatchewan created its first university in 1907. In Northern Ontario, the Collège du Sacré-Coeur in Sudbury was founded in 1913 by the Jesuits, taught exclusively French after 1916, and didn’t become a university until 1957. Maybe farmers are just smarter than miners, loggers and mill workers.

Saskatchewan has a habit of coming up with creative solutions to big problems. Who invented the Canadian health-care system, for example? Saskatchewan. It is a province that values big ideas and visionaries.

Maybe the way Saskatchewan is organized helps big ideas grow. In Saskatchewan, the average constituency covers less than one sixth the area of a constituency in Northern Ontario. A politician in Saskatchewan has about one quarter as many constituents as, say, Rick Bartolucci or Michael Gravelle. Saskatchewan’s 58 MLAs spend all their time on Saskatchewan. Our 10 MPPs spend 90 per cent of their time discussing issues in southern Ontario.

More participation and more talk, a legislature of their own, and ministries that focus on Saskatchewan give that province a huge advantage in mobilizing the talents of its people.

Having its own political institutions gave Saskatchewan an identity. From the time it became a province in 1905, the people of Saskatchewan have been building their province. They know who they are and where they live. Saskatchewan has an identity.

What is holding the economy of Northern Ontario back? It may be Northerners’ lack of vision and drive. And what gets in the way of our vision and drive? We don’t have the political institutions to express them.

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