Northern Ontario Separation – by Stan Sudol

This article was originally published in the Sudbury Star on March 9 , 2002

Maybe it’s time for Northern Ontario to think about going it alone

In my 45 years of living in Ontario, I have never seen such a tremendous rift between its southern and northern halves. The corporate, media and political elites of Toronto have grown so out of touch with the economic hardships and challenges of the North that for the second time in my life I have come to the conclusion that it would be in the best interests of Northern Ontario to secede from the south and form its own province.

When I was a teenager in the mid 1970s, I was sympathetic to the Northern Ontario Heritage Party. Ed Deibel, a North Bay businessman, unsuccessfully tried to separate from the south in order to establish social, economic and cultural justice for the distinct people of Northern Ontario.

Perhaps the time is right to revisit Ed Deibel’s worthy dream. A separate Northern Ontario would encompass approximately 85 per cent of the province’s land mass, using the French and Mattawa Rivers as the traditional boundary between north and south. With a population of roughly 838,812, according to the 2001 census, Canada’s eleventh province would be larger than New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Newfoundland, and would be eligible for more money in federal equalization payments as a “have not province” than it currently receives from Queen’s Park.

It was Toronto Sun columnist Christina Blizzard’s recent article blandly stating that the North is a willing host for Toronto’s garbage that finally convinced me to revisit the issue of Northern separation. I feel the Toronto media’s southern, colonial arrogance towards the North is only fuelling the cultural differences between the two regions.

The North is as much a willing host for Toronto’s garbage as an under age crack addicted prostitute is to a middle aged john.

But our problems are deeper than southern ignorance. During the past five years, 40,000 people have left Northern Ontario due to lack of economic opportunities    a modern version of the Highland clearings that took place in Scotland during the early 1800s or the Irish potato famine.

At a time when the GTA is choking on its own growth, housing is unaffordable, traffic and border crossings are paralyzed, many in the North wonder why more jobs couldn’t be located in their region.

Is there no vision in the south’s corporate and political leadership to address the economic problems of Northern Ontario?

How about expediting those tax incentive zones that would encourage economic development? How about transferring 5,000 provincial civil service jobs to the North and helping stabilize many of the one industry towns? How about encouraging corporate call centres to locate or relocate in the North by extending tax incentives?

It is actually quite pathetic to see Toronto, the wealthiest city in Canada, aggressively courting low end call centre jobs. Those opportunities should be redirected to Northern Ontario, helping the diversification of many smaller communities and offering a much more affordable standard of living to the hourly wage earning workers.

The cancellation of the spring bear hunt is another example of southern political arrogance    $50 million eliminated from the Northern tourism economy without adequate compensation to make up for the loss.

Sweden and Finland have innovative approach to northern districts

Sweden and Finland have an entirely different and creative approach to their northern regions. They heavily invest in northern universities, knowing that the engineering, medical and legal faculties will encourage people to stay and create jobs in their northern regions.

The province could do the same and begin with establishing a modern $50 million mining engineering school at Sudbury’s Laurentian University, just as Laurentian economist David Robinson suggests. It would enhance the city’s status as a centre of mining excellence and eventually generate start up companies. Engineering faculties in North America are reknowned as generators of new companies and jobs.

Ontario has established a joint medical school for Sudbury and Thunder Bay, to be sure a positive initiative. However, the constant delays in building the new one site Sudbury Regional Hospital in which these new doctors will be trained is no closer to completion than two years ago. In fact, medical school classes are likely to begin before the hospital is completed.

A technology program dedicated to the secondary manufacture of wood products should be set up with the local college or university in Thunder Bay, the centre of some of North America’s richest forests. Currently, Northern Ontario predominately exports raw lumber instead of finished goods like furniture, flooring and building supplies. Other provinces and border states actively promote the secondary manufacturing of wood products, with government sponsored trade associations and export offices    Ontario does nothing in this realm for economic development.

Sudbury larger than P.E.I.

The arguments for a separate Northern Ontario are many. In fact Greater Sudbury, at $4.5 billion, has a larger gross domestic product than P.E.I. ($3.5 billion).

The federal government spent billions connecting P.E.I. to the mainland, and has so far offered not one penny to help four lane Highway 69 South, the gateway route to northeastern Ontario that remains a single lane death trap, inhibiting economic development.

The North is tired and resentful of being viewed as just a summer playground for southerners and is very bitter seeing their sons and daughters migrating to the south to find employment.

Northern Ontario makes up only eight per cent of Ontario’s population and will always be outnumbered by the south. The North’s resource and economic issues will always be of secondary importance to the south.

The migration of 40,000 people in the past five years is glaring evidence that the current policies are not working. If southern Ontario cannot come up with effective economic policies for northern development, other than being a garbage dump for Toronto’s trash, then the time has come for the North to separate and become the master of its own destiny.