An all-party voice for North – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial (March 9, 2012)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

NORTHERN MPPs from all parties in the Ontario legislature have consistently expressed frustration with the Toronto-centric nature of Queen’s Park. Decisions affecting the North at times fail to take account of northern realities, with the result that Northerners often feel alienated.

 Conservatives and Liberals in power cannot change their opposition past even as they defend the nature of their northern policies. Thunder Bay-Superior North Liberal MPP Michael Gravelle is in just such a pickle this week.

 In opposition against the Mike Harris Tories, Gravelle was seen as a champion of northern causes. He racked up impressive electoral majorities at home because people in his riding viewed him as an effective voice for northern consideration in a legislature dominated by southern members and issues.

 Gravelle was rewarded for his good work and high marks when Premier Dalton McGuinty gave him the Northern Development and Mines portfolio. It was a mixed blessing. Gravelle often found himself at odds with key northern players over government legislation, like the Far North and Mining acts, that earned intense opposition in this region.

 Gravelle has since been handed the Natural Resources ministry and, together with his Sudbury successor at Northern Affairs, Rick Bartolucci, he remains in conflict with a series of northern interests, including mining over exploration rights and the legally evolving “duty to consult” first nations.

 Thus, when a northern New Democrat proposed an all-party committee of 10 northern MPPs to vet northern legislation before it is presented by government, Gravelle was back in that tough spot.

 As an opposition MPP, Gravelle would surely have been on board. But as a government minister he can’t very well sign up, even though members of all parties supported the motion by John Vanthof (NDP-Timiskaming-Cochrane) when it came up for a voice vote last week.

 Vanthof might well be asked why he did not instead introduce legislation in the form of a private member’s bill, which would have more force. In any case, he has turned up the heat with an invitation to northern mayors, reeves and first nations to support the bill that Kenora-Rainy River New Democrat Sarah Campbell says is “something northern communities have been wanting for years.”

 Thus came Gravelle’s careful response Thursday: “ . . . while I appreciate the sincerity of my colleague’s resolution, it’s important to point out that this process is already in place through various legislative committees and wider consultation that all MPPs are expected to engage in with their constituents.”

 He adds the best way to get all MPPs to understand the North is to engage all MPPs in the house “in supporting issues and legislation vital to our part of the province.”

 Good points. But let’s face it: northern legislation comprises a small part of the legislature’s business and most MPPs are far more personally and politically invested in legislation affecting the populous and electorally rich south.
 The courage of one’s political convictions rarely involves standing up in front of your party leader/premier and speaking against a government bill.

 This committee gives relative cover to government members to have a constructive hand in effective northern policy ideas without having to be singled out at Queen’s Park. Liberal MPPs were among those voicing support for Vanthof’s motion, which now must be ruled on by the governing party.

 The vote was “a positive sign, but it’s time for the government to step up, respect the legislature and get this committee started,” Vanthof told The Chronicle-Journal this week.

 It is difficult to see McGuinty agreeing — despite his minority situation — given that his Natural Resources Minister has essentially said the committee would be redundant. Northerners, we suspect, might differ with that assessment.

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