The North - What's to Debate?

May 25, 2014 - I find the whole idea of a “Northern Debate” a bit condescending. It smacks of the paternalistic attitude that many in Southern Ontario seem to hold towards Northern Ontario. It is as if we here in Northern Ontario are being patted on the head and told “yes dear, we will get to YOUR concerns too, after we deal with the real problems down south”. Somehow minimum wage, high debt, high taxes, high power rates, the demographic crunch, and youth unemployment don’t matter up here. They are “provincial issues” more suitable to a “larger stage”.

Of course the leaders of all three political parties should come to the north and debate. Just as they should go to Ottawa, Kingston and Mississauga to debate. Voters throughout Ontario deserve to see their potential leaders, and not just on TV. Let’s hear the competing visions for our province first hand. Let us ask questions, directly, and hear the answers robustly challenged. By all means let’s hold a debate, several debates, IN the North, but let’s dispense with the notion of a “Northern Debate”.

Sure, there should always be some local flavor to many of the questions. If the leaders were to debate in London, I suspect they might touch on manufacturing once or twice. I suspect subways might come up in Scarborough. In Brampton, immigrant settlement services could possibly be an issue. The same is true here in the North.

If a debate were to be held in Timmins, Sioux Lookout or Pickle Lake, a question or two may come up about the negative impact of policies for the North being written at Queens Park for a Southern Ontario audience. What can we do to reverse the unintended consequences of the Far North Act; the changes to the Mining Act; or the obsession of the recently revised Provincial Policy Statement on the need to constrain growth (a heavy cost in the South) versus promoting growth (a desperate need in the North)?

If a debate were to be held in Sault Ste Marie or Thunder Bay, some discussion could be reserved for the widening of the Seaway and the potential economic benefits that might result from larger ships on direct routes from Europe or India coming right into the centre of the North American continent. Or, if that is too big an idea, the leaders could at least debate how Ontario can better work with Ottawa on ice breaking in the Great Lakes. Depending on American ships to get the job done seems less than patriotic, and this year, has proven less than effective.

If a debate were to be held in Marathon, Greenstone or Hearst, a discussion about resource revenue sharing for rural and remote communities is likely on the cards. Or perhaps we could explore forest tenure and how some believe we are killing our mills, or at least making it extremely hard for them to be competitive (and hence sustainable), in the name of well, sustainability.

In Sudbury or North Bay, a conversation about transportation links might be in order. Highway twinning, rail connectivity, rail subsidies (and how they equate, for the North, to transit subsidies in the South). Active transportation corridors within and between communities could be explored. Or even just talk about highway shoulders – both their widening and their paving. Want a “bigger issue”? Then explore the question of value added production as opposed to shipping out unprocessed ore. If value added work is not one of our competitive advantages, what is wrong and can we fix it?

Finally, a debate anywhere in the north should explore the issues of the Ring of Fire and Ontario’s role in engaging and consulting with First Nations communities and other potentially impacted Aboriginal peoples. How do we achieve more Framework Agreements and fewer Caledonias? Should the province really take the lead in creating and running a provincial development corporation? Placing the taxpayers of Ontario in the unenviable position of carrying the risk for everyone else: the proponents, local communities and indeed the rest of Canada (who, by the way, stand to benefit from Ring of Fire development, just as we stand to benefit from development of shale gas in British Columbia or oil reserves in Newfoundland and Labrador).

There are lots of issues to debate and at least some of that debate must happen right here in Northern Ontario.


Authored by Charles Cirtwill

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