Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.
Northwestern Ontario may be on the brink of an economic boon, but the province can’t take that opportunity for granted, says federal Liberal interim leader Bob Rae.
Rae spoke Monday at a Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce luncheon. The former NDP premier of Ontario confirmed that he could become a negotiator for First Nations with links to the mining zone, and he would working with federal FedNor Minister Tony Clement.
But Rae said nothing about a new job will be finalized until his term at the Liberal helm winds up with the party’s leadership vote on April 14. Rae focused on the potential for prosperity in the region with the Ring of Fire.
“If we can’t take prosperity for granted and we have to work at it, then we must also mean we must not take this project for granted,” he said in his address at the Airlane Hotel and Conference Centre.
He said as premier of Ontario, he learned many hard lessons, like a province should never take prosperity for granted. Rae recalled that the day after he was elected in 1990, he was told that the province was going to go from a surplus in May to an $8-billion deficit in a very short time. By the next year, it was a $10-billion deficit due to falling revenues.
He and his government had to make hard decisions as the province’s economy floundered, which included resorting to the infamous Rae Days, where public-sector workers had shortened work weeks and weren’t paid for the days off.
During those times, he said, the government made long-term investment to carry regions and the province through to the future. Now another great potential lies in the Ring of Fire, and Rae said it could become one of the biggest mining projects in Canada, but it will take careful management.
“Mining companies must think globally when they choose to develop a site, like how are we going to get it out of the ground, process it, ship it and find markets for it,” Rae said.
For that to happen, governments have to consider a myriad of facets, like infrastructure, getting people there, training people, making communities near a project livable.
One challenge will be mobilizing all the resources of the community and governments to develop the project.
However, that could take years as parties negotiate and develop strategies.
“I learned that there is a difference between real time and government time,” Rae said.
“It’s real frustrating when real time and government time don’t match.”
Another challenge is making sure wealth distribution is fair and benefits many.
He said he could not discuss details, but after speaking with First Nations leaders, he is sure they want the development to happen, but they don’t want conditions of the past to be repeated. Their concerns include wealth distribution, making long-term jobs available in their communities and environmental protections.
“People must understand the profound stake the First Nations need to have in this development, and I am of the view that this can be done,” he said.
The luncheon was part of Rae’s day-long visit to the city, which included a tour of the Bombardier plant to see what Rae pointed to as the reason why long-term investments should be made in the northern economy.
“I encouraged investment in this city back when Bombardier established themselves as a major employer in the region,” he said.
“It’s also a very special part of the province for me, dating back to when I was a labour lawyer. I would spend a lot of time in this area. Life comes around in full circles.” Rae is to visit Dryden and Kenora today.