Our Experience Getting to “Know the North”

September 8, 2015 - As summer interns in Sault Ste. Marie, Mandy and I spent the summer working on a research project with Northern Policy Institute, called “Know the North.” Working out of Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, a generous amount of our days were spent reaching out to economic developers in First Nations and non-First Nations communities, in hopes of arranging informal interviews. We were happy to speak with an average of 72 economic development players this summer. The goal of the conversation was to gain a better understanding of how First Nations and Municipalities are faring on a social and economic scale, as well as address regional themes that Northern Policy Institute can tailor its research around and open the door to the beginning of a lasting partnership with northern communities.  Seventy two interviews and six well-used notebooks later, here is a snapshot of the things we learned over the summer:

• Hydro One can be attributed to consumptive energy prices. We discovered that Fort Frances has one of the lowest hydro rates in Ontario, directly resulting from Fort Frances Power Corporation, which is owned by the municipality. Local ownership of the utility company has emancipated the community from Hydro One, and is tied to a historic agreement that happened over 100 years ago between dam owners and the municipality.

• Partnerships strengthen economic development. Successful communities work together, or with organizations, in order to pool their energy and resources into a common goal. One excellent example of a successful partnership is the Regional Distribution Centre for Far North, with the communities of Sioux Lookout, Lac Seul First Nation and Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug participating. The goal of the Centre is to distribute affordable goods and food to isolated fly-in First Nations.

• Safe drinking water is a flagged concern among many First Nations communities. Nearly half of the 133 First Nations in Ontario are currently on boil water advisories, and 10 of those communities in Northwestern Ontario are still on advisories that were issued more than 10 years ago. Poor infrastructure, a lack of human capital and insufficient funding dollars have been identified as common reasons for ineffective water treatment facilities in First Nations Communities. In Dryden, we learned about a successful water treatment training facility, called Keewaytinook Centre of Excellence, which offers programming and certification to participants. You can learn more on their website: www.watertraining.ca.

• The Indian Act restricts First Nations people from holding property on reserve land in fee simple. This makes access to capital difficult for reserve members, as they do not have equity in their homes. The Lands Management Act has helped, in that once signed, the First Nation is negated from 25 percent of the Indian Act related to land-use. This gives the band unfettered authority over its land and resources, enabling them to allot parcels of land to First Nations members and to better pursue economic development projects. There has, however, been concerns among some First Nations with respect to the potential of losing the land for posterity. The Lands Management Act was established in 1999 and comes with its own set of restrictions in terms of eligibility.

• Infrastructure is a concern. In northern communities, a lack of access to capital for infrastructure projects is a resounding problem, and hinders economic development. While the newly introduced Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Program has invested $150 million into infrastructure over a period of two years, funds are reserved for aesthetic or national legacy purposes – such as upgrades to community centres, museums and parks, which does not speak to the real needs of communities in Northern Ontario.

• First Nations and municipalities are at different stages of economic development. Many First Nations communities are building capacity internally through governance, community planning, and land management. While many municipalities are in the strategic delivery stages of economic development. The disparity among the two communities with respect to economic development may be tied to: -different funding streams; -legislative restraints; -variances in geography, and distance from market; -socioeconomic factors; and -historic relations, among other things.

• Value-added products are key to economic diversification and a means of overcoming the side effects of a ‘one industry town’. For example, in 2006, Northern Ontario’s forestry sector took a hit and mills began closing down across the region. The mills that were able to remain open tended to diversify their product offerings. One example is the Terrace Bay Pulp Mill, which changed ownership in 2012. The mill had once produced pulp for toilet paper. Now it produces pulp for rayon, a fabric commonly used in lieu of cotton.

• Mining towns tend to have transient populations. In terms of generating local wealth, transient populations do not usually invest in the communities in which they work – paying taxes and spending of monies is typically done outside of the community. Red Lake documents a loss of $24 million annually in out-shopping.  While mines such Kirkland Lake Gold are beginning to offer incentives for their employees to purchase homes locally to combat this trend.

• The agricultural sector functions as an economic stabilizer, especially for resource-industry communities. Temiskaming Shores and Oliver Paipoonge, are examples. Tile drainage has enabled farmers to extend the growing season and corporate farming is becoming more prominent in agriculturally dominant areas. Communities tend to be wary about corporate farming, questioning their commitment to, and longevity within, the community.

• Tourism is often pursued as a plan B. Communities that were traditionally reliant on resources as an economic engine, and experienced a downturn, often look to tourism as an avenue of economic generation. After Kenora’s pulp and paper mill closed in 2006, losing with it 750 jobs, Kenora rebranded itself as a premier destination community to adapt to the shifting economy. Now, cottaging brings in eighty-five million dollars annually to the local economy, and has spurred a thriving restaurant and retail sector. 

We would like to thank each economic developer who took the time to speak with us over the course of the summer.  This information will go a long way in identifying research areas for Northern Policy Institute. Going forward, we have personally gained a better sense of what makes Northern Ontario unique and deserving of regional policies that reflect the distinct needs of the region. 

Many thanks, Chi-miigwetch,

By Jamie McIntyre and Mandy Masse, summer interns with Northern Policy Institute.

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