Should I Stay or Should I Go? Why leaving Northern Ontario is hard, but coming back is easy

August 22, 2016 - It’s around that time of year when students looking ahead to post-secondary studies will face the deadline to accept offers of admission. For Northern Ontario students, this looming date is a symbol of choice: to move away or stay in the north?

The decision to leave at 17 or 18 years of age is not an easy one. With four universities including law and medical schools, six colleges, and a large distance education network, staying in the north might seem like the obvious choice. And for those who live within driving distance, attending the local institution sounds logical.  

Yet each year, many students pack their bags and drive across the province or fly across the country to pursue studies beyond the boundaries of their northern homes.

Three years ago, I loaded my belongings in an old red minivan and bid farewell to the icy shores of Lake Superior. I drove eighteen hours from my northwestern hometown of Thunder Bay to Ottawa to attend Carleton University. Like others, I had been encouraged to leave Northern Ontario. I was told the opportunities in the south were plentiful, the politics more fascinating, and the sights more captivating. I was never one for big cities, but it seemed like the right thing to do.

But three quarters of a bachelor’s degree later, I have found myself returning to the north each summer to work. Year after year, I have secured a job in Thunder Bay more quickly than in Ottawa. And as for the sights, well, nothing beats the north.

My actions are not uncommon, however. Friends, family, and coworkers of mine who initially left the north have returned home for work, graduate studies, or even to settle down. It seems as though no matter how many times we are pushed away, we tend to float gently back.

Meanwhile, according to CBC, the Ontario provincial government is spending $4 million on a marketing program to draw Southern Ontario students to colleges in the north. Sault College president Ron Common argued although the $4 million price tag appears steep, it brings students to the north instead of adding to already overcrowded campuses in the south.

And for college students native to Northern Ontario, studying here is advantage. Five of the six northern colleges ranked in the top eight in Ontario, according to a new survey by Colleges Ontario. Confederation College, Sault College, Northern College, College Boreal, and Canadore College all scored above the provincial average of 76 per cent in student satisfaction, the survey found. Graduation rates in 2015 also matched or exceeded the provincial average at Canadore, Confederation, Northern, and Boreal Colleges.

Not only is there a strong case for pursuing studies in the north, there is a convincing argument for completing a post-secondary degree in general.

Since 1990, the number of jobs requiring a degree has doubled, while the number demanding high school education or less has shrunk, according to Stats Can. A report by Rick Miner titled, “People Without Jobs, Jobs Without People” concluded that by 2031, 77 per cent of the workforce will need to have post-secondary credentials, compared to the 60 per cent we stand at now.

On top of this, post-secondary enrolment is projected to increase in Ontario by an average of 1.7 per cent through to 2017-2018, with about one in every six adult Ontarians enrolled in the province’s public post-secondary institutions, according to the Ontario Ministry of Finance.

Northern Ontario’s landscape is vast and dotted with small communities. To reach more students, some northern institutions are making efforts to be accessible remotely. Last year, Ontario invested $1 million in new technology at Lakehead University from the province’s Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation. The money provides students in Kenora and Sioux Lookout with an interactive university experience through life-size screens, allowing students to feel as though they are in the classroom.

Although access to education and the demand for degrees is on the rise, finding a job as a young person in the north is not as daunting as it may seem. In a paper by James Cuddy for the Northern Policy Institute titled, Settling Down in the Northwest, he notes that in recent years, youth participation and employment rates in Northwestern Ontario have been slightly higher than provincial and national levels. He adds youth unemployment in the region has generally been lower than in Ontario and Canada. Cuddy also remarked the youth labour market in Northern Ontario has historically suffered from youth out-migration, with 20-24 year-old contributing most to the decline.

With high student satisfaction and promising employment rates in the north, why are young people packing their bags for the south?

Perhaps it is a result of the urge young people feel to leave the nest. Or, as I found out, their program of choice was not offered at a local institution. Whatever the reason may be, there is certainly a strong case for hitting the books in our own backyards. Northern Ontario is not only massive in land, but also in opportunity. And when opportunity knocks, always check the front door.

Emma Tranter is a Communications Intern at Northern Policy Institute.

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