Is there any hope in the Northern separatist threat?

March 14, 2016 - In my February column, I talked about how shifting to proportional representation in place of our current first-past-the-post electoral system could give Northern Ontario more clout in the halls of power down there in Ottawa. Interestingly enough, as I was crafting that piece someone else was reviving another idea meant to give Northern Ontario more power over its own future right here at home: Separation! Vive la Northern Ontario libre!

A fellow by the name of Trevor Halliday has launched an online petition calling for the creation of the province of Northern Ontario. As of writing, his online petition had 3,815 supporters. A Sudbury Star story talking about the petition also included a poll on the issue; the results there stand at 2441 in favour, 744 opposed.

Even if we were to assume that the 2,400 Sudbury Star voters and the 3,800 petition signers were not mostly the same people, the total is still well short of the 10,000 supporter threshold that the Northern Ontario Heritage Party (NOHP) achieved in October 1977, the point at which it became an official party in Ontario. Alas for the NOHP, early standard bearers of the “treat us better or we are leaving” Northern meme, it was largely downhill from there.  A paid-up membership of just 200 by 1981 and just four card-carrying members by 1985. Although the NOHP was revived in 2010 and is still fighting for a better deal for Northern Ontario (if no longer calling for separation if we don’t get it), it is still largely being ignored by voters.

This, regardless of the merits of our beef with Queens Park or Ottawa, is the crux of the problem with debating separation.  If those of us living in the North don’t take this option seriously (and we don’t) then no one else will either.

So, could separation be made more appealing to Northerners? Maybe, but it is a long shot. Work done by, among others, Lakehead economist Livio Di Matteo has shown that the fiscal return of separation or annexation to Manitoba is likely break even at best. Why go through the time, trouble and expense of separation to be only marginally better off?

A resource boom, based on the Ring of Fire or just resurgent global markets, could potentially give the north some real incentive to make a better deal with Queen’s Park or to finally go our own way. Especially if the perception was that over-regulation, mismanagement or just neglect was negatively impacting opportunities for growth and prosperity here in the North.

Resource extraction played a big part in the growth of Ontario. The basic infrastructure upon which the services and society of the South was founded (and upon which they continue to depend) were, in large measure, paid for by wealth extracted from the North. There is a lingering resentment about that trade off, not quite to the level that Newfoundland and Labradoreans feel about Churchill Falls, but it exists. Anti-anything passion is certainly enough to dramatically sway public opinion, just ask any number of Premiers and Prime Ministers.

Of course, the counter to these arguments is that the friction, such as it is or could be, is readily addressed with changes well short of separation. The shame is that we, and the folks on the other side of the bargaining table, move quickly from rejecting separation to rejecting just about any other meaningful form of devolution of power. Note: devolution of power is not the same thing as downloading of responsibilities. There has been lots of downloading of costs, but legislative and regulatory authority is still firmly centralized far away from our hearths and homes. At least here in Northern Ontario.

British Columbia has had regional governments making major infrastructure decisions and regional transportation investments for some time. The province of Quebec is currently experimenting with regional bodies that blend indigenous and non-indigenous decision makers well outside the influence of Quebec City. Indeed, some autonomy has been devolved to other Ontarians that is still denied to those of us in the North. Regional municipal governments exist throughout Southern Ontario, deciding on and investing in critical regional services. But these enhancements in local autonomy stop at the French River.

There may have been “good” historical reasons for this two-tiered approach to citizenship and accountability in Ontario, but given ongoing calls for increased autonomy and more local control, it seems the least the province could do is revisit those choices. Or, we could just wait and see if Mr. Halliday can turn his 3800 into 38000.

By Charles Cirtwill is President and CEO of Northern Policy Institute. First published in Northern Ontario Business, March 2016.


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