Revisting the Idea of Northern Ontario Separation – by Stan Sudol

This column was originally published in Northern Life on Jun. 21, 2007

The McGuinty Liberal’s policies of the past four years are severely hampering Northern Ontario’s two main industries – forestry and mining.

In the spring, Premier Dalton McGuinty ignored a delegation of five northern mayors, whom collectively represented two-thirds of the region’s population, and were presenting a policy document – Northern Lights: Strategic Investments in Ontario’s Greatest Asset – that detailed constructive solutions for the region’s many problems.

After 130 years of being a resource colony for the south, has the time finally come to create our own province?

Yes, I see the eyes rolling and the heads shaking, but northern separation does have merit.

And if it was possible to carve out Nunavut from the former Northwest Territories with a tiny population of about 30,000 – roughly twice that of Kenora – then a separate province in the north is economically feasible.

There was never any vote or official plebiscite among the region’s inhabitants about joining the south. Instead, Queen’s Park unilaterally annexed the north – a provincial version of Manifest Destiny. The term Manifest Destiny comes from American history and was the belief that American territorial expansion in the 1800s was due to their inherent natural superiority and divinely inspired.

I think most municipal politicians in northern Ontario may feel that the prevailing mind-set at Queen’s Park is very similar to that arrogant philosophy.

The original greedy land grab was primarily due to the north’s rich resources and had opposition from Manitoba and the federal government. The Manitoba challenge to Queen’s Park’s territorial ambitions turned into the “so called” Rat Portage War – a decidedly tame affair. Both provinces established competing magistrates, police forces and jails at Rat Portage – present day Kenora. Each side kept arresting opposing bureaucrats; there was a jail break and even competing provincial elections in the summer of 1883. The boundary was eventually settled by the Queen.

Northern Ontario is big. Some may even say monstrous. The region takes up about 90 percent of the province’s geography north of the French and Mattawa Rivers.  Ontario’s north is larger in area than every other province or territory in Canada except for Quebec, Nunavut and Northwest Territories.

Northwestern Ontario alone is approximately the same size as Italy while the northeast is about the size of France.

Yet with a population of about 786,000 – just six per cent of provincial total – it has no political clout.

From 1871 to 1914, almost 25 percent of Queen’s Park revenues came from Northern Ontario’s resources. The rich hardrock mining districts of the Sudbury Basin, Timmins and Kirkland Lake funneled so much wealth into Toronto that the city became a global centre of mining expertise and financing.

During The Depression those same mines significantly helped the province avoid bankruptcy while the explosive increases in the price of nickel, copper and Platinum Group Metals found in the Sudbury Basin – where half of Ontario’s current mining activity takes place – have made a major impact in slaying the Liberal government’s recent deficit. Many historians feel that it was the north’s enormous wealth that allowed Ontario to become the economic engine of the country.

In terms of economic output, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Northern Ontario was about $24.2 billion in 2005. This is larger than the respective GDPs of Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and the combination of all three territories.

On top of the many infrastructure and economic challenges facing northerners, the most threatening is the environmental movement.

Calls to freeze resource development in Ontario’s vast mineral-rich, boreal region are being met with favourable reactions in southern, vote-rich urban ridings where most people have very little understanding of the mining sector.

For many aboriginal communities – living in impoverished, third-world conditions – the mining sector is their only chance of decent jobs and futures for their children.

To northerners, the constant rhetoric about mine development and ensuing loss of wilderness would be akin to protesting the building of southern auto factories and the disappearance of irreplaceable farmland through urban sprawl.

The alienation or disconnect between Ontario’s north and south has never been greater. Queen’s Park doesn’t understand or worse doesn’t care about the distinct problems of northern Ontario. If there is a time to debate the merits of a separate province, than surely it is now.

Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant and policy analyst who writes extensively on mining issues,