The North is growing, in places

April 28, 2015 - The response to my April column about recent successes for young people here in our region was met with a mix of relief and skepticism.  Relief that here at last we had some good news; skepticism that the news wasn’t all that good since it reflected more hitting bottom than getting better. In fact, I think one commentator used the phrase “rock bottom.” If this is “rock bottom” I will take it.

Over the last several weeks Northern Policy Institute has released a series of reports looking at population, demographics and the workforce in Northern Ontario. The news is good, but mixed. In the northwest, starting around 1987, the total number of employed people ranged between 105,000 and a peak of just over 115,000. Over the last seven years we have seen those employment numbers essentially fixed at around 100,000. So, bad news, down some 15,000 jobs, good news, very stable after a sharp downturn. That’s a good place to start.

Yes, our total population across the entire north does continue to decline and the forecast of future population numbers is grim. Particularly for francophones, immigrants and more rural and remote communities, all of whom will see their total population fall if current trends continue.  But from 2001 to 2013 five of the eleven districts in Northern Ontario grew in population. Kenora, Manitoulin, Parry Sound, Nipissing and Greater Sudbury grew on average by about 4% over that twelve year period. Manitoulin grew by over 5%. That growth seems to be matched with some very specific activities or changes in those districts: growth in the aboriginal population, investment in major public infrastructure, ongoing economic diversification and, innovation in some of our more traditional industries.

Those linkages offer very good direction for policy makers. Direction that in many instances they are already acting on. Highway twinning continues in many areas across the north, better connecting us not only with the outside world but with each other. Private and public investments in port infrastructure is being made and more is being considered. Investments in telecommunications infrastructure are happening. Closing the cell phone gaps and bringing high speed internet to more and more rural and remote regions (and better internet to our larger urban centres) makes sense and will deliver long term benefit as it allows us to expand our home grown information economy. Investments in workforce training and enhanced targeting of that training to both underserved pools of existing labour and actual, existing employment vacancies is accelerating.

The message of connected and capable workers is one that comes out loud and clear in our most recent work. In comparing the northeast to the northwest, Lakehead University economist Bahktiar Moazzami, found some very interesting variances. In the northeast, educational attainment for the aboriginal population is much higher than in the northwest. Average income for the entire workforce in the northeast is also higher. Dependency on government transfers is lower in the rural northeast than in the rural northwest. Participation rates are higher and unemployment rates lower in the very rural and remote parts of the northeast than in the very rural and remote parts of the northwest. There is greater economic activity in strongly rural areas in the northeast than the northwest and more people have jobs (there is a higher percentage of rural income earners) in the northeast than the northwest.

Moazzami ties these better outcomes to two key factors, and no surprise they are linked. He does a complex analysis of what is known as “human capital”; basically the level of skills, knowledge and education that a population has. He finds that changes in this factor alone can explain between forty and seventy percent of the variance in earned income depending on where you live. The better educated you are, the more you will likely earn.

This doesn’t mean everyone lining up for university, but it does mean access to effective basic education and opportunities to expand knowledge and skills to match employment opportunities and personal aptitude. He also highlights that it is not really a surprise that his human capital index is higher in the northeast than the northwest. The better developed and more extensive highway network in the northeast means people can get to other communities more easily. This expands the breadth of programs from which they can choose in preparing for their future.

Again this supplies clear and easy advice for policy makers to follow. Invest in education, particularly for rural and remote learners and permanently connect more communities because the social and economic benefits are long term and reinforcing. All weather roads and better more accessible education in northern communities. Two things we know have worked in at least five northern districts, let’s have a go at replicating that across all eleven.

Charles Cirtwill is President and CEO of Northern Policy Institute. An independent social and economic think tank based here in Northern Ontario. (Originally published in Northern Ontario Business on April 24, 2015).

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