Mapping out a united vision for [Ontario] Northerners – by North Bay Mayor Al McDonald (September 28, 2011)

North Bay Mayor Al McDonald made this speech to Greater Sudbury City Council, Sept. 28, about mapping out a united vision for Northerners:

Bon soir. Good evening.

Your Worship and Members of Council:

On behalf of the citizens of North Bay, it is my pleasure to bring greetings and, in the spirit of friendship, thank you for this opportunity to address you this evening. I would also like to thank you for hosting the Northern Ontario Business Awards last night. Your city was a welcoming host and your community was showcased in a positive light.

On a personal note, I would like to thank all of you for your time, energy, and commitment for your dedication to public service. It is never easy and it is always tougher on our families as we have to give up a lot of family time with the demands of the job. So, I would like to thank your family members as well. It is interesting that we as elected officials get more credit than we deserve at times but get much more blame as well. I have the greatest respect for those individuals successful or not, for putting their names on a ballot. Thank you for serving.

Here in Northern Ontario, we enjoy a quality of life unparalleled to other places in the world. We have parks, green spaces, wildlife, colleges and universities, festivals, arts, culture, theatre, safe communities, and focus on families. We have a knowledge-based workforce. We have the potential to be an economic leader in the country and world. Like other centres, we have shortage of skilled workers, unfilled positions. The perception of the north is that we are behind the times; that we don’t have the expertise or the technology to compete; that somehow there is nothing important north of the 400.

I always find it interesting that Toronto, for example, promotes the CN Tower as a marvel of science. You would find it as a symbol of our Province or country. Yet we have a mine here that if stood up is 600 stories high, has vehicles in it that would not fit on the 401, and has a safety record second only to education. We pump air down 600 stories using engines bigger than jet planes and create wealth for entire workforces. If we stood up the mine to the CN Tower, the tower would look like an ant hill. Yes, we have incredible knowledge and expertise here in Northern Ontario. We need to tell our story to the world.

I am here tonight to bring what I believe is an important issue that we face as Northerners – Northern Ontario unity. Most of us ran on the belief that we could make a difference in our communities, make our cities stronger, and provide opportunities for our citizens to succeed. It can be thankless at times but rewarding never the less. Running cities is a full-time job, with many demands on our time, many appearances, and answering hundreds of emails. Similar to small business owners, many just put their heads down and work as hard as possible. That is the biggest downfall of municipal governments. As leaders, it is important to allow our City staff to carry out the day-to-day operations of our cities.

They have the expertise and knowledge to carry out the job professionally. Council should provide the vision and direction and give the staff room and respect to carry out those details. A sign of a strong leadership is a healthy respect between staff and council. Council should respect the role of staff and staff will then respect the role of Council. If you have that, it frees up your time to do what you do best, that is to lead. You will be greatly successful with everyone working in the same direction. We must never lose focus of the bigger picture as elected individuals. If we dedicate a lot of our time on the day-to-day pressures, we will fail in our leadership role to truly make a lasting difference in our communities. We must remain above the fray, with cool heads, a strong will to succeed, and a spirit of leadership that is inclusive of all.

I like you and our citizens, are proud of our communities. A sense of pride in our hometowns is important. We are equally as proud to be northerners. Northerners are a hardy bunch, friendly, hardworking, generous individuals that believe in helping others. They believe in honesty, integrity, and, above all, respect for others. But Northerners are also looking for leadership; they are looking for northern leaders who have a passion for the north. They want leaders that have a vision, a plan, and the energy to make it happen. It is easy to fall into the trap of just lobbying for money, for policy changes or handouts. As elected individuals, we have a relatively small window to truly make a difference. We should not wish one second away but embrace the challenge before us.

I would like to state, for the record, that many organizations are doing good work here in the North. FONOM is a great example of a group of northerners pushing for policy changes, for lobbying Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill. Our northern MPs and MPPs do a wonderful job of bringing our message back to Toronto and Ottawa. They are champions of the north. But in reality, they too need to lobby their parties regarding policy and funding. They fight and lobby for their ridings and communities. You can see the theme here. Everyone is committed and working hard but in silos. It is a classic divide. There is not a vision, a plan or direction for all of Northern Ontario.

I am not here to suggest for one moment that these groups or individuals are any less champions for the north than us. We live in a world where decisions are being made far from us and while many of those decisions are being made in good faith with all the available information on hand at the time, the room for error is significant. Decisions made in Southern Ontario, made in good faith and with all available information at the time, do not guarantee it will be a good decision.

It is a sensitive time, as we are in the middle of a Provincial campaign. I believe mayors and councillors should remain neutral. They need to work with the elected governments of the day. Having said that, it does not mean we cannot move forward. Two examples of policy decisions influenced in the south that have had an impact on Northern Ontario are the banning of the Spring bear hunt and the far north act. The point I am trying to convey is not if you support or not support these decisions but the fact that it plays out well in Southern Ontario. These policies have had major implications to businesses and industries in the north. How many more decisions are going to be made in the south that are popular there but have a huge impact on our abilities to grow our northern towns and cities. Politics trumps good policy at times. We read about it every day. Southern Ontario has its own challenges but we don’t interfere in their decisions.

It is our time to develop our own plan, our vision that bonds us as northerners, to embrace the unknown and promote the expertise that we have here in the north. We need to tell our story of our hopes and dreams. How can we expect senior levels of governments to make informed decisions, to develop good policies, and to partner with us if we don’t have a vision, a direction, or even a plan? We need to stick together as northern cities and towns and to lend support to one another for to embrace what is good for one city can be equally as good for another in the north.

In conclusion, I am here tonight to plant the seed of leadership. We need to come together, to support each other and have a united front. Yes, we will still compete against one another for business and economic development, but we all have different areas of expertise that can be supported for each centre. What is good for one city is also good for neighbouring cities. If the north continues to grow, we are all successful. We can no longer just complain or lobby for our fair share with our hands extended but present a plan of ideas and common approaches for success.

I read a story in the Globe and Mail the other day. The article was titled, “Why Northern Ontario is Important for Both the Leaders and the Economy.” There was a quote that really stood out for me. The quote was from Dr. Laure Paquette, a Professor at Lakehead University. It read, “For the north to be getting this much attention is unheard of. There is really big long-term economic potential, but people don’t know how to play their cards. Local politicians don’t know how to handle the attention.”

Ladies and gentlemen, Ontario and Canada is looking to the north for its far reaching potential and growth. It is our time to stand up and chart our destiny. Our hopes and dreams rest on the ability of our northern leaders to grab the reins and give them a tug. Leaders see opportunities, embrace change, include others, and share success. I am here tonight to share these thoughts with you and ask for your leadership here in Greater Sudbury and other cities in the north. We must reach out to business leaders both public and private, community leaders in our cities and first nations. We all have an important role in the building of wealth and opportunities for northerners. I thank you for this opportunity tonight.