Dave Robinson is an economist with the Institute for Northern Ontario Research at Laurentian University. [email protected] This column was originally published in the May, 2010 edition of Northern Ontario Business
The Growth Plan for Northern Ontario is based on a simple prediction. The majority of communities in Northern Ontario will continue to decline. Behind that prediction is an economic analysis that says the forests of Northern Ontario will provide fewer and fewer good jobs.
The analysis is convincing. The forest industry must cut costs to compete. There will be fewer mills. Mills will be more automated. Jobs will vanish. The wood industry is trying to respond. It has created organizations to develop new technologies, new products and new markets. FPInnovations, which was created in 2007, now claims to be “the world’s largest private not-for-profit forest-sector research institute.
” Wood WORKS!”, a program led by the Canadian Wood Council is campaigning to make wood the main building material for all types of construction.
These are both very good organizations. They are both underfunded, and they could both do more with energetic support from our politicians. But they will not reverse the decline in the Northern economy.
FPInnovations is really just a three industry-led research organization stuck together with federal funds. FERIC works on forest management, Forintek works on manufacturing processes, and the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada handles the pulp and paper industry. A fourth piece, the Canadian Wood Fiber Centre is still part of Natural Resources Canada, but under the wing of FPInnovations. It is supposed to be industry-led like the other divisions.
The job for FPInnovations is to make its corporate members more competitive, not to make communities in Northern Ontario sustainable. The major companies that support it are the traditional players like the pulp and paper producers, sawmills, and oriented strand board producers.
Promoting industrial innovation for these companies is absolutely necessary. That is why the government pays for more than half of the work. Looking for the path to northern prosperity through corporate-led research is like looking at the map of Timmins around the base of the pyramids. You are looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place.
Wood WORKS! represents a more radical and creative approach. Wood WORKS! tries to change the way people think about wood. Its goal is to create a “wood culture” in Canada.
Wood WORKS! is trying to change the building code so that wood can be used in taller buildings. Did you know that the world’s biggest supplier of wood products (Canada) wouldn’t allow for five-storey wood buildings? Building inspectors don’t have confidence in our new building techniques and improved sprinklers!
Outdated building codes mean that mid-rise buildings are being built out of concrete, shutting Northern Ontario out of a lucrative market in growing cities. It prevents growing cities from using climate-friendly wood, instead of fossil fuel-gobbling concrete.
The barrier lies in provincial regulations and provincial bureaucracy, so our northern MLAs should make changing the code and changing the inspectors part of their northern growth plan. It’s worth at least a thousand northern jobs.
Let’s promise to hang Mr. McGuinty’s picture in every shopping mall in Northern Ontario if Mr. McGuinty promises to change the building code this year.
We need to go farther. In Northern Ontario we need to take the Wood WORKS! approach and turn it around. Instead of changing the culture of the buyers, we need to change ourselves.
We need to create our own advanced wood culture in Northern Ontario. We should be building the most beautiful wood buildings in the world. Every public building in the North should be an advertisement wood construction. We should have awards in every town and school for creative and beautiful use of wood.
We should be training our kids to recognize trees and make wood carvings. We will soon have a northern school of architecture – we should make sure it has the best prototyping labs for wood construction in the country. We should build an international school of Industrial Design in Wood in Northern Ontario.
All of these steps will make the North a better place to live, and they will help create a culture that grows smart and rich using its greatest resource.
One way to end the decline of the North, it turns out, is to go deeper into the woods.