Got a dog in that fight [Ring of Fire Economic Potential] – by David Robinson (Northern Ontario Business – February 27, 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 

There is a battle going on for a big chunk of Northern Ontario. On one side is the global economy, desperate for minerals, desperate to minimize costs and leave behind as little as possible. On the other side are a handful of Northern communities hoping to leapfrog from being a 19th-century fur colony to being a highly educated, highly productive, self-governing 21st century society.

It is a David and Goliath struggle over how the value of Northern resources will be shared. And we have a dog in the fight, as they say in the southern U.S. We really need the Indians to win this one.

There are two selfish reasons to support the people of the Far North as they struggle to get some control of development in the region. The first is elementary economics. The more value stays in the Far North, the more will stay in the rest of the North.

The second reason for supporting the communities of the Far North is elementary politics. If some Northerners get a bit more control of their regions, we will all end up with more control. What is happening around the Ring of Fire is a kind of proxy war for the established communities south of the height of land. If our underdog champions, the Aboriginal communities of the Far North, win the battle, then we all win. If they lose, the evil global trading system will control the North until the next ice age.

Maybe Cliffs Natural Resources and Queen’s Park aren’t exactly evil, but they will play the parts that their stockholders and voters demand. For over a century, the North has been under a provincial regime that financed itself by selling Northern resources to foreign businesses. The main reason for the Northern treaties was to give Queen’s Park the legal cover it needed to sell off the resources of the North. Today’s worldwide resource boom has triggered the final act. The last undeveloped region of the province is on the block.

We, in the North, could take this chance to turn the Far North of Ontario into a model society. In this last corner of the North, we could create a society that cultivates its native heritage and still provides the best possible lives for its people. We have the chance to make something new and lasting after a century-and-a-half of being the egg that gets sucked. That is a dream that should unite Northerners.

But instead of supporting their fellow Northerners, most communities in the south of the North are fighting each other for a share of the Far North pie. Cliffs is playing Sudbury off against Thunder Bay and Timmins for a smelter. No one is talking about the fact that Cliffs plans to ship most of its concentrate out of the country. Almost everyone in the mining industry is blaming First Nations for holding up progress. No one notices they are fighting for a bigger share for the North. The Conservative ex-mayor of North Bay is actually attacking the Liberal minister of northern development for passing out the gravy too slowly.

Northerners should be working to squeeze as much as we can out of the North’s last great treasure chest for the North. We should have a plan to use mineral revenues to create the most modern, best educated, most productive and humane communities in the world.

One problem is that most non-Native northerners don’t see the demand of Northern First Nations as their fight. And with a few brilliant exceptions, most Aboriginal Northerners don’t see non-Aboriginals as part of their team. We have a history of being racially divided and racially ruled. That history is the biggest threat to the North’s economic future.

Developing the Ring of Fire might add 30,000 non-Aboriginal immigrants to a region with a current Aboriginal population of about 7,500. Will those new Northerners just swamp the Northerners who are there now? Or will they mix to produce an exciting fusion of culture that can be a model for the rest of Canada? Are we watching one last wave in the old boom-bust cycle, or are we looking at the beginning of something built to last? The answers depend on whether we can figure out who is on our side.

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