Northern voices can indeed be heard

July 6, 2015 - The Mowat Centre, a research institute associated with the University of Toronto, just released a “Federal Economic Agenda for Ontario.” The document essentially asks, and answers, two questions: What are the primary challenges facing Ontario? And, what does the evidence tell us about the best possible responses to those challenges?

For northerners, the importance of this document isn’t just in the policy recommendations provided within it (policy recommendations free for the taking by any political party or candidate, regardless of their geographic location or philosophical bent). The real significance for the North is demonstrated in the difference between the Mowat Centre’s original discussion paper, released last fall, and the final document, released this spring.

In the original paper, there was very little about First Nations and Aboriginal peoples. In the original paper, there were mentions of the differences between regions, but little sense of how vast those differences really are. Particularly as they relate to infrastructure, mass transit, housing, investment attraction, and the labour force. In the original paper, there was no mention of FedNor whatsoever. A program so central to the federal government’s presence and activities here in the North that the mere public mention of its name raises hackles on all sides.

In the original paper, there was mention of the Ring of Fire and a call for the federal government to match the provincial commitment of spending a billion dollars to kick start development in the region. But there was no discussion of what to spend the money on. No consideration of who should guide the spending. No exploration of how (or indeed even if) the affected communities, all of the affected communities, should be involved in making those decisions. All of those points and then some are covered in the final document.

These northern issues and northern perspectives are included in a document written by experts living in the “Greater Toronto Area” because the people of the North took the time to inform those experts. Between November 2014 and March 2015, students, academics, entrepreneurs, community activists, private business people, elected and non-elected officials shared their ideas about the issues holding us back and how to solve them. Aboriginals and non-aboriginals, First Nations, Metis, young and old alike had a voice and, in a context of mutual respect and openness, they stepped up and got involved.

Not just offering opinion, but offering evidence. Providing real life examples from the North (and beyond) about how they or others had faced similar challenges and overcome them. Or, attempted to overcome them and failed. After all, knowing what not to do is often just as important to policy makers as knowing what has worked in the past.

Recognizing that as a community we could not just offer a laundry list of grievances, the discussions were focused on solutions. Every contributor was asked to make choices. To pick the things they would do today, and the things that could be fixed tomorrow or at some further point down the road.

It worked. Clear priorities emerged and practical, evidence based, solutions were offered, and accepted. The experts in Toronto listened. Any document seeking to put forward a coherent plan for a province as geographically, economically and ethnically diverse as Ontario is, by definition, going to include some compromises, and avoid other issues entirely. But the difference between what the experts were prepared to say last fall and what they could, with confidence, say this spring is there for all to see.

We need to see more of this model. Northerners working together, talking to each other, across regional and cultural and generational boundaries. Talking publicly and openly. Backing up their positions with evidence and thoughtful discourse. Being willing, with one voice, to explain what we want, why we want it, and to provide a basis for why we believe it will work. That collaboration needs to become more habit than exception. When our largest municipal advocacy groups have joint meetings it should not be subject of a major media release and surprised public commentary. That level of communication and cooperation should be a given.

So we, the people of the North, are not done yet. We need to take the lessons of how we successfully educated the experts at the Mowat Centre and apply that to all of our interactions with those not from the North. For that matter, we should apply those lessons to how we deal with each other. But first, let’s see if we can keep our streak going. We have a federal election on the horizon. Bend the candidate’s ears when they come to your door this fall. The Mowat Centre has heard and taken our advice. Northern voices can indeed be heard in Toronto. The next question is: can they be heard in Ottawa?

Charles Cirtwill is President and CEO of Northern Policy Institute. An independent social and economic think tank based here in Northern Ontario. Northern Policy Institute was the research partner for the northern contribution to the Federal Economic Agenda for Ontario. “Northern Voices can indeed be heard” was first published in the July edition of Northern Ontario Business.

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