[Thompson, Manitoba] Talking to ourselves: TEDWG meeting – (Thompson Citizen Editorial – June 29, 2011)

The Thompson Citizen, which was established in June 1960, covers the City of Thompson and Nickel Belt Region of Northern Manitoba. The city has a population of about 13,500 residents while the regional population is more than 40,000.  news@thompsoncitizen.net

It’s still hard to know at this point just what to make of the Thompson Economic Diversification Working Group (TEDWG), announced jointly May 18 in a news release from the City of Thompson and Vale. The company is funding the group, which is expected to last an initial 12 months for identification and implementation of a strategy to replace the smelter and refinery, scheduled to enter the history books by 2015.

The first public open house and meeting was held at the Letkemann Theatre June 22. Approximately two dozen folks attended and out of that number, maybe two or three were what we could call ordinary regular everyday citizens, as opposed to that inelegant term “stakeholder,” which really means, “I’m here because it’s part of my job to be here (that would, of course, include the two of us from the local media).”

Mayor Tim Johnston was there. Ditto deputy mayor Charlene Lafreniere and councillors Penny Byer and Dennis Fenske (who are also both Vale staff employees), and councillors Stella Locker and Erin Stewart.

City manager Randy Patrick and Gary Ceppetelli, director of planning and community development, were also on hand, as were Lovro Paulic, general manager of Vale’s mill, smelter and refinery for Manitoba Operations, and Ryan Land, manager of corporate affairs here.

Adrian DeGroot, a retired Vale employee, who also served for many years on city council, and Volker Beckmann, owner of Design North, a graphic arts and brand identity consulting firm, as well as volunteer co-ordinator with Spirit Way Inc., showed up, as did Mark Matiasek, general manager of Thompson Unlimited.

But as we noted May 25 in this same space, “Sometimes – a lot of the time, in fact – you can infer as much or more from what is not said and who is not at the table, at least initially, as from what is said and who is at the table.”

The elephant in the room, of course, was the non-presence and non-participation in the Thompson Economic Diversification Working Group of United Steelworkers Local 6166 and President Murray Nychyporuk, and the Province of Manitoba, in particular Thompson NDP MLA and Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton, as well as the federal government. All have all been invited to participate in TEDWG, and all, for their own reasons, have been no-shows to date.

That’s a huge elephant in the room. Nychyporuk and USW Local 6166 will do their talking at the bargaining table this summer. The province’s response to TEDWG was to introduce the Thompson Nickel Belt Sustainability Act June 2, which became law June 16.

Michelle Drylie, an urban planner with Toronto-based consultants rePlan, who have been hired by Vale to work with TEDWG in finding a way forward in developing perhaps five to seven options to broaden and diversify the economic base in Thompson and surrounding region, facilitated the session.

Drylie talked excitedly about the trade advantages she perceives Thompson has being located geographically right in the centre of Canada at the intersection of the Mid-Canada Development Corridor, which is essentially the boreal forest region of Canada, stretching from Whitehorse in the Yukon and Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, across the Mackenzie Valley and northern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador, midway between the High Arctic and the heavily populated south, and the long-dreamed of north-south Mid-Continent Trade Corridor, which would connect Mexico City to Winnipeg and perhaps run as far north one day as Thompson and even Baker Lake in Nunavut, via the hub-and- gateway cities of San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Omaha, Fargo and Minneapolis.

Excitement is a good thing. But you can’t take it to the bank unfortunately and plan a future for Thompson that begins in less than four years around it. The Mid-Canada Development Corridor and Mid-Continent Trade Corridor are wonderful – albeit largely unrealized – dreams, something like former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s planned “Road to Resources” announced on March 26, 1958.

To be fair to Drylie, an award-winning University of Toronto graduate who picked up the Canadian Institute of Planners Award for Academic Excellence, a Centre for Urban and Community Studies Urban Planning Research Award, and the Edie Yolles Award in Urban Planning, this was essentially a blue-sky thinking out loud exercise, and she’s there to consult, facilitate and advise as her job requires. She’s not a political decision maker, so one doesn’t want to make too much of her musings, although rePlan did have maps highlighting the Mid-Canada Development Corridor and Mid-Continent Trade Corridor routes.

The Road to Resources would have stretched from Dawson City in the Yukon to Fort McPherson or Tetlit’Zheh and Inuvik and then with a Mackenzie Valley Highway, even Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories, back down to Norman Wells and Wrigley to Fort Liard and then east around the Great Slave Lake to Coppermine in Nunavut and finally into Saskatchewan in an attempt to connect Northern mining communities. The road, however, ends suddenly along the Ingraham Trail at Tibbitt Lake, about 120 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife, also known as Somba K’e.

The good news is the Dempster Highway portion, from Dawson City to Inuvik, finally did open in 1979 as Canada’s first all-weather road above the Arctic Circle.

Alas, Thompson doesn’t have 53 or even 21 years to wait. The road ahead, whether actual or metaphorical, must be a real road.