Master Plan To Destroy Northern Ontario – by Gregory Reynolds (Highgrader Magazine – Summer 2011)

This column was originally published in the Late Summer, 2011 issue of Highgrader Magazine which is committed to serve the interests of northerners by bringing the issues, concerns and culture of the north to the world through the writings and art of award-winning journalists as well as talented freelance artists, writers and photographers.

The recent annual meeting of Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) heard a great deal of comment, and concern, expressed about the Ontario government’s love affair with Greater Sudbury and Thunder Bay. Speakers claimed these two cities appear to be favoured when the Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty doles out assistance to the North.

That the two largest centres are special, even privileged, should not have been a surprise to those in attendance.

Members of Timmins city council should have been least surprised since famous prospector, and equally famous outspoken advocate for Northern Ontario, Don McKinnon presented each of them with two documents in 2004: The Master Plan to Destroy Northern Ontario; and Addendum to The Master Plan to Destroy Northern Ontario.

These two briefs were based on the final report by a blue-ribbon panel that was established to study the Role of Government.

The $1.5 million report produced 50 research studies (written by southern Ontario ‘experts’ with no northern input) and was titled “Investing in People: Creating a Human Capital Society for Ontario.”

The main conclusion was simple, and deadly: Ontario’s future lies in concentrating investments and human capital in its large cities. This would be achieved to the detriment of small, rural and remote communities.

It might be a shock to the residents of such regional cities as Sault Ste. Marie, North Bay and Timmins but they were classified as rural communities. Only the North’s two metropolitan cities, Thunder Bay and Greater Sudbury, can stand alone on their own tax bases, the report states. Some of the conclusions are absolutely brutal, and there are those who don’t believe they will be implemented but today McKinnon makes the point we have passed the stage where the report is being discussed – it is well into the implementation stage.

Residents of Northern Ontario only have to look around them to see the results of the government’s implementation strategy.

The report stated that “hard choices have to be made. The provincial government cannot provide subsidies to everyone everywhere in the province. Nor can small communities survive, and provide a reasonable minimum level of services and jobs, within a climate of population and economic decline. The continuing experience of Newfound-land’s outports, in which numerous small and isolated communities have been shut down and their residents relocated, is a case in point.”

What is ignored in the report is the fact that the province keeps creating new policies and rules that destroy industries, the North’s forestry sector, hamstrings others, mining, and imposes demands for new projects, water and sewer, beyond the financial capacity of local governments. Premier McGuinty welcomed the report when it came out, saying “this report provides some context for the decisions we have to make now.”

He then told the Toronto Board of Trade that “if I can strengthen cities which are our primary source of wealth generation, I will be in a better position to help support programs that are essential to build capacity and rural and remote Ontario.”

It never happened and probably never will as the province is as broke as the municipalities it fathered.

Having examined all of the problems in the North, the report came to the conclusion that locally elected politicians and their appointed staffs are incapable of providing good government. It stated: “There is no feasible substitute for direct provincial involvement in the planning and financing of such communities and in the provision of services to their residents.

At the same time, we recognize that there will be difficult trade-offs between the desire for local control and autonomy in small communities on one hand, and the need for provincial resources and direct political and financial accountability on the other.”

There are four major problems facing residents, and all levels of local government, of Northern Ontario.

We will outline the four and then provide the recommendations of the report. There is a critical shortage of medical personnel, facilities and state-of-the-art equipment. The exodus of young people is turning the North into a combination nursery school and old age home.

There is a need of job retention and creation through economic diversification of our three primary industries, forestry, mining and tourism.

Every activity results in unreasonable costs, such as for social and government services, transportation and heating. Dealing with time-distance-weather factors is beyond the resources of both residents, employers and local governments. The report wants an end to subsidizing medical personnel and services. To quote it “…in recent years there have been concerns regarding a shortage of health care professionals in Northern Ontario. Programs that artificially sustain communities in Northern Ontario increase the demand for health care, creating a shortage, which leads to additional demands for financial support from the provincial government.

Thus, the elimination of subsidy program target towards individuals (doctors) and industries would make more resources available for the basic services that at-risk communities need, as well as reduce the amount of resources necessary to maintain reasonable levels of public service.”

The report calls for financial assistance for young people to leave the North and not come back.

Proposal #40: ”We recommend that the provincial government play an important role in providing young people with regional labour market information, such as job-search and training program assistance, enabling them to make fully informed choices regarding future employment prospects.

The province, in co-operation with the federal government, should consider providing appropriate transitional arrangements, such as those aimed at retraining, for those willing to pursue opportunities beyond their home communities.” Sink or swim on your own is what the report wants the province to tell Northern Ontario businesses and industries.

Recommendation #39: “We recommend that the provincial government ensure that those choosing to live in at-risk communities have access to strong public institutions such as regional health centres, schools and community colleges, that offer comparable core services to metropolitan (Greater Sudbury and Thunder Bay) centres. However, the province should phase out regional economic development programs, such as the provision of subsidies and tax incentives to businesses, which risk promoting permanent government-induced dependency.”

Elsewhere it looked at the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC) “which assists northern communities (in generating) short and long-term employment important to their economic viability and the quality of life.

In general most of these assistance programs are inappropriate. The province should not provide expensive economic development subsidies that risk promoting dependency. Subsidies can artificially sustain a community that would not otherwise survive at its present scale by reducing incentives to seek employment and educational opportunities outside the community.

In the long run, artificially sustaining a community can leave citizens economically worse off than if they were to relocate and/or work in an economically sustainable community.”

The cost of both living in the North, finding and retaining employment and dealing with distance, time and weather factors is looked at in the report but the solution suggested is that communities be assisted “in planning for delcine…..but done on a thoughtful and humane basis.”

(We wonder if the residents of Smooth Rock Falls, Opsatika, Mattice, Hearst, Kapuskasing, Cochrane and Timmins think they were treated “humanely” when they recently encountered hard times through job losses and turned to Queen’s Park for help)

The report goes on: “This will initially require convincing communities that their future is smaller, and then working with those communities to achieve shrinkage while maintaining a viable and vibrant quality of life.”

Also it said: “This will require, in some extreme instances, the introduction of provincial relocation grants to enable firms and individuals to move to more viable settlement locations. Those grants, in the long run, will almost certainly be less expensive than the public costs involved in maintaining everyone in high cost and isolated locations.”

Following are some of the ideas advanced in the report that already have been implemented: Users of government services should pay the full costs of such services, with the exception of basic services such as health and education. The province should rely to a greater extent on market-based instruments for regulating environmental issues. The instruments include environmental taxes on emissions and user fees, such as water and sewer use, both of which force individuals to confront the costs of environmental harm and consumption.

The government make use of market-based pricing for electricity, with peak and off-peak rates, available to all electricity consumers to promote conservation and consumption shifting, being sensitive to the impact of such pricing on low-income users.

Market-based pricing, as in natural gas, oil and gasoline, should be pursued because taxpayers should not subsidize electricity consumption and production.

Government should adopt measures to encourage greater private sector investment in the electricity sector in order to harness effective capital market scrutiny of generation investment. The report noted the population of Northern Ontario represented only 7.4 per cent of the provincial population yet the land area represented 89 per cent of the Ontario total.

The report found municipalities in Northern Ontario are located in 10 territorial districts and the District of Muskoka. There were 155 municipalities, 105 First Nations and over 150 unincorporated communities, including 44 Local Service Boards, holding about 840,000 people. The report suggests the province “encourage municipalities to make greater use of debt for long-term capital projects.”

It means an end to fiscal responsibility at the local level. The report bluntly states: “Future generations should bear some of the cost of creating the infrastructure that will provide them with services.”

Where is the logic on one hand urging programs to get people and businesses out of the North, thus further eroding an already weak tax base, and on the other hand urging municipalities to spend beyond their means?

The resident left behind when youth and businesses flee at the ‘gentle’ urging of Premier McGunity will face ever-increasing taxes to pay soaring debts while more and more jobs disappear.

Since his election in 2003, McGuinty has produced numerous reports to help Northern Ontario but in reality designed to make northerners forget his sins of commission and omission. The latest piece of drivel out of the bowels of Queen’s Park is called ‘The Growth Plan for Northern Ontario 2011.’

It is a collection of long-winded statements, hopes and promises without any timelines, budgets or real commitments. If it was a meal, a vulture with its cast iron stomach and unceasing hunger couldn’t wring an ounce of nourishment from it.

But with a provincial election this October, McGuinty is dreaming of a third majority government. The City of Timmins has 43,000 residents and the 2011 municipal budget is $102 million. The local taxpayer contributes $59 million, or just 57.8 per cent of that $102 million. Other governments, read Queen’s Park and Ottawa, contribute $28 million.

Is Timmins a welfare case? Yes, but so are all the other municipalities and local governments in this great province. They cannot exist without annual senior government assistance but each year the local tax burden increases.

Municipalities are creatures of the provincial government and this government is well on its way to destroying its creations……and the special way of life northerners have always enjoyed.