Grit’s David Peterson Was Northern Ontario’s Best Friend – Stan Sudol

This column was originally published in the Sudbury Star on February 20, 2004

Liberal Premier David Peterson had the vision and the will to support Northern Ontario

History will probably show that The Honourable David R. Peterson PC, QC was the best advocate Northern Ontario ever had. Ontario’s 20th premier, who was also Minister Responsible for Northern Development and Mines, was a true visionary, in the same mold as John A. McDonald, this country’s first prime minister.

Premier Peterson’s greatest legacy was the decentralization of parts of the Ontario civil service to various regions of the province. This forward thinking Liberal policy was initiated to spread the wealth and stability that government jobs provide. At that time, a disproportionate number of civil servants were located in the booming Toronto region which was choking on its excessive growth.

By relocating government offices and jobs throughout the province, the Peterson Liberals helped diversity the economic base of many communities that were affected by rapidly changing economic conditions.

In those innovative years, the Ministry of Natural Resources was relocated in Peterborough, the OPP headquarters went to Orillia, the Ministry of Agriculture moved to Guelph, parts of the massive Ministry of Health was shifted to Kingston and a section of the Ministry of Transport headed for St. Catherines. Unfortunately the Conservatives stopped the relocation of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture to Niagara Falls.

The North was a major recipient of the decentralization goals of the late 1980s. The Northern Ontario Relocation Program involved the moving of eight different ministries and agencies encompassing approximately 1600 government jobs to Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, North Bay and Sudbury.

In a May 19, 1988 speech in Thunder Bay, to announce the relocation of the Student Awards Program of the Ministry of Colleges and Universities and the headquarters for the Office of the Registrar of Ontario, Premier Peterson said, “This is part of my dream for northern Ontario. To my way of thinking, this is a demonstration of government support and commitment at its best.”

“Equal Partners”

He further continued, “…but more importantly, we do this because we feel deeply that your’re full and equal partners in the future of this province. And these moves help put that future in your own hands.”

Unfortunately, Premier Harris did not share those same goals and in the past five years public administration employment in Northern Ontario has fallen by 26%, and only 11% in the rest of the province. The North has taken a disproportionate part of the Conservative government cutbacks, a shameful legacy from a Premier originally from North Bay.

Premier Peterson’s goal was to bring government closer to the people that they serve and to use the sizeable economic spin-off of government payrolls to boost business prospects for the North. It is definitely time to revisit this issue and start a new round of government decentralization for the 21st century.

Sudbury was one of the most fortunate communities to benefit from this enlightened policy. Premier Peterson recognized that the future belonged to regions who embraced the leading edge of technological innovation and knowledge-intensive activity.

But most importantly Premier Peterson saw the incredible potential of Sudbury’s globalized mining industry.

On July 30, 1986 the Premier announced a number of important mining and mineral research initiatives by establishing a Mining Research Directorate and a Chair in Rock Mechanics and Ground Control at Laurentian University.

On that date, the Premier commented, “Government provides an important link between universities and the industry in the province’s mining and mineral research efforts. The Ontario Geological Survey (OGS) enjoys an international reputation for both the extent of its geological data and the quality of its interpretation given that data by OGS professional staff.”

“Recognizing the importance of that linkage, and the benefits of proximity in research, I am announcing today the relocation of the OGS and the mineral resources branch to Sudbury, together with the head office functions of the MNDM.”

“With this transfer of all provincial mining and mineral research functions to Sudbury, the provincial government is helping to make Sudbury a centre of excellence in mining and minerals. At the same time, we are honouring our commitment to the North.”

The Premier ended his speech with the following: “… Sudbury was chosen as the site for this conference because of its growing reputation as a centre of mining experience and know-how. This government wants to build on that reputation and put Sudbury on the road to being an internationally recognized centre of excellence in the earth sciences, mining and mineral research. To do that means increasing the store of mining knowledge that is here already. The programs I have outlined will help to do just that.”

Almost twenty years ago, the Premier Peterson clearly recognized that Sudbury should be establishing itself as a “centre of mining excellence” by taking advantage of the local mining expertise that was, and still is, in demand around the world. The Northern history books will treat Premier Peterson, who originally came from London, Ontario very kindly.

The McGuinty Liberal government has some very big shoes to fill. However, they could begin by exploring the possibility of centralizing all post-secondary mining engineering and geology programs at Laurentian and establishing that institute as the “Harvard of the mining sector.” All it takes is the vision and the will to be the best in the world.

Sudbury can become the hard-rock mining supply and services centre to the world, known for its cutting-edge innovative technology and expertise – the Silicon Valley of the mining sector. But the political, educational and business elites of the city and province must work together to further build on the foresight first proposed by one of the most innovative and visionary Premiers to ever govern Ontario – and the best advocate the North has ever had –David R. Peterson PC, QC.
Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant and freelance journalist who writes extensively on mining and Ontario issues.