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One of the analytical tools used in economic history to assess the impact of an economic event is the counterfactual. How different might the world be if an event had not occurred, and instead, an alternate economic reality occurred? The comparison is between the world today and the world as it might be.
I ask this question in the context of the Far North Act because of its potential impact on the future economic development of Ontario’s North and particularly the economic opportunities for the First Nations in the Far North.
While put forward as a process for community-based land use planning and development, the Far North Act is also setting aside from development an interconnected area of conservation lands of at least 225,000 square kilometres — an area that is about 20 per cent of the landmass of Ontario. To put it into context, it is an area about twice the size of southern Ontario — which represents only about 10 per cent of Ontario’s land mass.
The Far North is vast and potentially rich in economic resources. Its exploitation could serve as a source of economic development for a region that has been chronically depressed over the last few decades. While one might argue that the North is so vast that 20 per cent of its land is not really a significant amount, the fact is we do not know if the most valuable or least valuable parts of the region in terms of resource potential will be sequestered.
To frame a counterfactual, how would the economic and indeed political history of Ontario and Canada be different if in 1774, with the passage of the Quebec Act, the British government had decided to set aside the lands of the area west of the Ottawa River, north of lakes Erie and Ontario, and south of the French River as a wilderness preserve in order to safeguard its natural heritage for future generations?
Suppose Sir Guy Carleton and the British government had decided that this land was to remain free from agricultural settlers and development and serve as a vast nature preserve for future generations of the Empire.
Think of the implications. With the American Revolution, the United Empire Loyalists might not have settled in Ontario. There would have been no timber trade and no agricultural settlement, no Ontario wheat economy and no urban development. There would be no Toronto, Guelph, London, Kitchener or Hamilton or a host of other cities.
Future development would have bypassed the region entirely and occurred either to the north of it or even further west if at all.
Another possibility. During the War of 1812, the empty region could easily have been invaded, occupied and then developed by the Americans. Indeed, American history during the nineteenth century was one of expansionism and an empty region to its north would have been a likely target for annexation. There would likely not be a Canada, as we know it.
Think of all the millions of people currently living in southern Ontario, the cities, the dense urban development and think of it now as pristine wilderness forever preserving majestic stands of deciduous forest and white pine. Or, think of it as another rust-belt state in the U.S. Midwest.
Far fetched you might say? Not applicable given the differences in the expectations and standards of yesterday compared to today? Perhaps. Yet, think of it as simply an example of how history might have been different if a “Far West Act” had been passed for Britain’s Quebec colony. Then think of how the future of Northern Ontario’s economy might be affected by developments that we cannot presently imagine as a result of the Far North Act.
This is not to say that we should not preserve a large chunk of the natural heritage of the North for future generations. After all, think of what has been lost of southern Ontario’s rich natural heritage due to unhindered urban sprawl and development.
Yet, we must also think carefully about how future generations in the North are to earn a living. How will we be certain that the 225,000 square kilometres being set aside does not contain another nickel deposit the size of Sudbury’s or even vaster amounts of gold, iron ore, palladium or some other resource? What if a valuable resource is discovered on land after it has been designated as protected?
What if First Nations decide to harvest timber on what they see as their traditional land but which the government has designated as protected? Then what? Exactly what kind of decision making and consultation mechanism with First Nations did the government have in mind when it passed the Act?
The North is land- and resource-intensive. That is its comparative advantage and it risks being hampered by such far-reaching legislation. Along with protected areas, failure to agree upon a land use plan means that development could be frozen for decades. Indeed, the uncertainty regarding what land is going to be off limits may discourage business investment. If similar legislation had been passed early on in the history of southern Ontario, Ontario’s future economic greatness might never have come to pass. Why should the opportunity for future growth be limited for Ontario’s North?
While land should be set aside for environmental protection purposes, there needs to be flexibility to ensure that economically beneficial resource development can occur and that the development is done in an environmentally responsible manner. This is not saying we should repeal the Far North Act. However, we need to ensure as the Far North Act is implemented, that sufficient consultation with affected communities occurs and that care is taken when categories of protected lands are designated so as to not hinder the economic development of the North and its First Nations.
It is not enough for the provincial government to assume the Far North Act has been misunderstood and needs to be better explained. The provincial government actually needs to listen.