Ontario Northern Growth Plan better than it looks – 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. This column was published in the April 2011 issue.

Dave Robinson is an economist with the Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development at Laurentian University. drobinson@laurentian.ca 

There is little enthusiasm for the so-called Northern Growth Plan. Public comments are lukewarm. Sudbury Mayor Marianne Matichuk, for example, offered the opinion that it might be good that there isn’t a lot detail, that it leaves room for improvements.

In private, responses range from boredom to outright contempt. In fact, the plan is not really all that bad, though it isn’t actually a plan, of course; rather, it is really a list of guiding principles for the hundreds of sub-departments of the ministries that run Northern Ontario.

They are finally trying to get their act together. Minister of Infrastructure Bob Chiarelli is promising to support a lot of obvious good things and to encourage everyone else to develop real plans based on the principles in “The Plan.”

But here is the real point. As a statement of principles, the document shows promise. For the first time, the government admits that Northern Ontario needs an education system that fits its economy.

This is a huge leap in understanding for the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry.

Is the Ministry of Education on board? Probably not, but Northerners can start work on their own curriculum. It is now government policy!

For the first time, the province recognizes the importance of policy by Northerners, for Northerners, done in the bright light of day.

Government policies will still be generated in 13 closets of 13 ministries in Queen’s Park, but there will be some kind of Northern Policy Institute.

For the first time, the government has admitted it doesn’t have a transportation plan for the North. Transportation planning is the foundation of a development strategy, and according to “The Plan,” the government is planning to plan the transportation network. That is progress.

For the first time, the government has realized that it has to encourage Northern cities to develop denser and more efficient cores.

Northern communities have disproportionately high infrastructure costs.

A small decline in population, a rise in fuel and heating costs, even tighter environmental regulations could make whole towns unsustainable.

Right now, the lunatic municipal tax system encourages people to spread out, driving costs up.

The Ontario Municipal Board encourages sprawl. Our kids will inherit communities that are fiscal basket cases.

It’s true “The Plan” doesn’t include a solution to these problems, but it does include a plan to talk about them. That is progress.

I would have been a lot happier if the minister had said that he knows this is not a real plan.

It would have shown guts and integrity to admit he was embarrassed that more than three years of work got only part way to his goal.

Calling this document a plan leaves us wondering if the minister or his staff even know what a plan is. Will city councils throw heart and soul into making changes if they don’t think the minister knows what he is talking about? Or will they decide that this is just another political show to keep Northerners quiet?

My view is that there is some content here and that the ministries have learned something.

It is true that the document has serious shortcomings – there is nothing about devolving decisionmaking to the North.

There is nothing about community forests. The section on energy still treats the North as an energy source for the south.

The most serious weakness in the document is that it doesn’t admit a single error.

Planning starts by identifying what has to change. So does reform. Alcoholics have to admit they are alcoholics.

Sinners have to admit they are sinners, and governments that follow policies that lead to underdevelopment have to admit that the policies have failed.

This document admits nothing.

It would be easier to believe changes are coming if the document admitted that some provincial policies have failed in the North.

It would be easier to have confidence in the minister’s promises if he admitted that achieving some of his goals will involve serious battles within the government.

For all its weaknesses, this “plan” represents real progress.

Instead of letting it sink like previous efforts, Northerners should hold the government to the good intentions expressed in the document.

Let’s plan to do some real planning of our own.