Why Northern Ontario doesn’t change? – by David Robinson

Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business  provides Canadians and international investors with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North.  

Dave Robinson is an economist with the Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development at Laurentian University. drobinson@laurentian.ca His column was published in the March, 2011 issue.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back is always a surprise. It is always a surprise when the worm turns.

It was a surprise when a popular insurrection began in Egypt, even though we all knew that change had to come some day. It is not a surprise that Northern Development, Mines and Forestry Minister Michael Gravelle has backed away from reform in the forest sector.

It is always hard figure out when the camel’s back is going to break or when the worm will turn. A whole new science has developed to help us think about sudden changes in eco-systems and politics. The science of change isn’t very encouraging when we apply it to Northern Ontario.

Resiliency theory is a branch of “dynamic systems analysis.” It is full of simple ideas dressed up for school. There are wonderfully weird terms like “state attractors,” “catastrophe folds,” and “metastable states,” “torus destruction” and “homoclinic bifurcations”.

A standing camel, for example, is metastable. A camel is hard to knock down, but if you add that last straw, down it goes. When you add the extra straw you cause a catastrophe.

The tipping point, where the camel crashes, is a bifurcation. And armed with this vast knowledge of camels, we are ready to apply resiliency theory to Northern Ontario.

We know that the forestry system in Northern Ontario is pretty stable: it has lasted 150 years. It is not a particularly good system.

There is no evidence that the system will support economic growth, and it certainly hasn’t promoted economic diversification.

Major firms have been going bankrupt, mills have closed, and towns are in crisis. The ministry only hopes that the population decline will end sometime in the next 25 years.

Two ministers of Northern Development and Mines, Rick Bartolucci and Gravelle have promised dramatic reforms, but almost nothing has happened. That is a resilient system.

But what makes it so resilient? Why is it that our well-intentioned cabinet ministers had no effect? Why didn’t support for change across the North turn into action? How many more straws will it take to break this camel’s back? Where the heck is that homoclinic bifurcation?

One way to understand what makes the system so tough is to look at how the system was built.

First, there was a forest. Next, came a government in southern Ontario. The government got the right to control the forest from the English Crown.

How did the King of England get the right to make decisions for the people of Northern Ontario? That is another story. The government supported itself by selling cutting rights to its friends. That was the beginning of a conventional forestry industry that still holds forest tenure.

The system has progressed from incest to mere co-dependency.

Workers brought in by the companies were like the children in a bad marriage – long after it was clear the relationship wasn’t working governments stayed tied to the companies for the sake of the children. As the provincial bureaucracy developed, it regulated the industry as it worked to make it profitable. An iron triangle of bureaucracy, politicians and companies emerged that was tremendously hard to change.

We have have a crisis in Northern Ontario like the crisis in Egypt. In Egypt and here the government system failed to produce jobs for young people. In both cases, dissatisfaction grew and grew.

In Egypt, food shortages sent people into the streets. Mubarak tried to delay until the crowds went home. The people were not fooled when he consulted with his council of the wise.

In Northern Ontario, the government has also faced series of crises. Each time it started a long consultation process.

Remember the Smart Growth Panel? Or the Northern Growth Plan that was begun four years ago. Even the northern mayors are beginning to think the government is stalling.

The solution in Egypt and in Northern Ontario was more democracy. Neither government wanted more democracy. Mubarak was unsuccessful in his attempts to stall. Our government was very successful. We Northerners went back to sleep.

We let a system designed to prevent changes decide what changes we should have.