Ontario North: The next 150 years

Choices for the future

While 2017 has been a year of celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary, it also has been a time for Northern Ontario to look at its future..

The Northern Policy Institute recently held a conference in Timmins, Ontario to examine the state of Northern Ontario. One of the sessions dealt with the future governance for North Ontario.

Two future options

Two main options were presented. David MacKinnon, a former Senior Official in the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a frequent contributor to the Globe and Mail, argued for  keeping the current structure with the creation of regional governments.

The other option presented by, economics Professor David Robinson of Laurentian University, argued for an increase in authority for Northern Ontario based on the devolution of powers from the federal and provincial governments.

Northern Ontario and its districts as defined in this map produced by the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation. Map appears courtesy of the NOHFC.


David MacKinnon: The risks of devolution

MacKinnon warned that increasing Northern Ontario’s power by devolving political power from the provincial and federal governments comes with a risk and the outcomes of devolved governments are not always beneficial. He pointed to Scotland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands as examples.

David MacKinnon, a former Senior Official in the Ontario Ministry of Finance and a frequent contributor to the Globe and Mail addresses the NPI Conference in Timmins. Frank Giorno for TheOneOnLine.ca.

Devolution of power would risk tying Northern Ontario to dependency on an economy based on mining and forestry commodities instead of seeking alternate development.

Northern Ontario is, in MacKinnon’s view, already disconnected from Northern nations, where it should be focusing, and will become even more isolated with devolution.

The end result MacKinnon said, will be that Northern Ontario will remain reliant on traditional resource based economies.

“For the future, Northern Ontario should instead be diversifying and embracing the new economy that is web and digitally driven,” MacKinnon said.

Increased Divisiveness

MacKinnonn also said that the process of devolution will create increased divisiveness within regions of Northern Ontario, between the rest of Ontario and Canada. This could lead to more damage to the Northern Ontario economy, slowest growing of all northern jurisdictions.

MacKinnon warned that devolution of powers is not a panacea for future prosperity. He pointed to the economic problems faced by Scotland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands that have not prospered as expected with greater devolution of powers.

The need for regional governments

MacKinnon, however, did see a need for  the addition of a regional system of government to help produce economies of scales in delivering public services, and reduce inter-north rivalries by better coordinating how Northern Ontario interacts with provincial authorities.

David Robinson: Greater autonomy for Northern Ontario

David Robinson, favours greater decision-making power for Northern Ontario. The ability to make its own decisions will lead to better social and economic outcomes that the present system where decisions are made in Toronto by a southern Ontario dominated legislature.

David Robinson, econmics professor at Laurentian University sees the need for greater autonomy for Northern Ontario. Frank Giorno for TheOneOnLine.ca.

Robinson challenged MacKinnon’s perception that Northern Ontario is isolationist, on the grounds that Northern Ontario has no decision making power about focusing on developments in Northern nations – those decisions are made in Southern Ontario  at Queens’ Park.

Autonomy means better decisions

Robinson argued jurisdictions achieving greater autonomy make better decisions for themselves than those who have the decisions made by distant governments

He quoted Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations,” and the success of the United States a former colony of Britain when it gained control of its destiny.

Smith wrote the U.S. succeeded because it had  “Plenty of good land, and liberty to manage their own affairs, their own way.’’

In other words, Robinson said they succeeded because “they were at liberty to manage their own affairs”.

Northern Ontario can’t do that under the existing governance structure dominated by Southern Ontario.

Northern Ontario: A colony of a colony

Northern Ontario is the largest area (843,853 km²) in North America that does not have state or provincial status. Northern Ontario also differs from Southern Ontario  geologically, biologically, historically, demographically, economically, politically, and culturally.

Robinson compared the current system in Northern Ontario as a colonial relationship, where much of the wealth flows south where most mining and resource industries are based.

“The most striking feature of the regime in Northern Ontario is its failure to promote economic or social development. Northern Ontario is growing more slowly than the other northern regions of all other provinces or the Northern Territories, ” Robinson said.

Robinson concluded the political structure for Northern Ontario hinders it from succeeding because it is not self-governing. For example Northern Ontario is  divided into a series of administrative districts that are run from Southern Ontario, where decisions are made on how the resources are to be allocated.

Devolution or Separation

For Robinson the long term solution is a better political system, democratic self rule – either devolution or separation.

A viable province in Northern Ontario would be the solution. And devolution would  be better for the South too.

“A wealthier north would be good for the south. It would bring in more revenue from exports and buy more from the south,” Robinson said “Northern Ontario is a distraction for a huge province with huge problems.”

Northern Ontario is trivial in revenue and population despite having more people than 3 provinces and 3 territories.

“There are resources, people and a culture of democratic government that has been held back. It would require building good political infrastructure,” Robinson said.

On the question of whether devolution would contribute to good governance or detract from it, Robinson replied.

“Since the existing system is a profound failure (slowest growing economy in the North) the downside of change is small,” he argued.

Despite the preponderence of evidence for autonomy for Northern Ontario, Robinson maintains it is not ready for devolution.

“There are no leaders. There are no institutions for making regional decisions.   I do not believe that municipalities are capable of providing sustained leadership. There is no local right to allocate resources, and there is a provincial government in Toronto that undermines local attempts to organize.

It would take many years for an autonomous  province Northern Ontario to emerge and it would need the awareness of Ontario that autonomy would be a win-win proposition.


The ONE Poll

How should Northern Ontario be governed in the future?

  • Stay the same
  • Stay the same, but with creation of regional government
  • Get more autonomy and decision making powers
  • Stay the same but The First Nations should be able to become self governing



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Frank Giorno

Frank Giorno lives in Timmins, Ontario. He is a graduate of York University (Honors B.A Political Science) and Ryerson School of Journalism (B.A. Journalism). Frank has worked as a city hall reporter for the Brandon Sun; freelanced for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. He is the past editor of www.mininglifeonline.com and the newsletter of the Association of Italian Canadian Writers. Frank has also worked as Research Director for the Canadian Environmental Law Association; Senior Communications Advisor on Water Quality Issues for the Ministry of the Environment; Public Affairs Associate for Region of Peel Public Works; and Media Relations Officer for Toronto Public Health. In Timmins, he served as the Communications Manager for Mushkegowuk Environmental Research Centre/Five Nations Energy Project on Energy Conservation. He freelanced for www.timminstoday.com Frank is a published author of essays on the internment of Italian-Canadians during World War 2, “Internee 328: Camp Petawawa” co-written with James McCreath appears in “Beyond Barbed Wire” (Guernica Editions 2012). He has published four books of poetry, My Nation is a Train...Wreck (2017, Northern Voices Publications), MoPoPoMo (2016, Northern Voices Publications), “Elvis in America,” and “Arrivederci! Plastic Covered Couch ( 2006, 2008 Lyricalmyrical Press)”.

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