Independent policy analysis for Northern Ontario – by David Robinson (Canadian Government Executive – Vol. #18 Issue #9 – November 26, 2012)

Dr. David Robinson, is director of the Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development at Laurentian University.

We are entering what Neil Bradford calls the third wave of Canadian regional development policy, which recognizes the importance of regions in national-provincial economic growth.

The word “northern” in Ontario means something quite different from northern in the rest of Canada. Northern Ontario is southern Canada. Almost all the population of Northern Ontario lives south of Vancouver, and more than 99 percent live south of Edmonton. It is a region larger than Alberta, Saskatchewan or Manitoba, and larger than the four Atlantic provinces. It would have been a province, in fact, if forward thinking Torontonians had not engaged in a bit of successful colonial expansion.

Northern Ontario provides a striking example of how regional differences complicate provincial policymaking. The south of the province is part of one of the world’s most powerful economies: 56 percent of Canada’s population lives and works in a tiny strip 1,100 kilometers long, just 100 km wide bordering the largest market in the world. The rich, industrial Windsor-Quebec corridor, can go toe-to-toe with the famous “Asian Tigers.” Modesty aside, it is the historic heart of Canada and still the economic engine of the country.

The south is dealing with massive urban growth and immigration. The north is an economically depressed region despite the current mining boom, and Ontario forecasts zero population growth over the next 25 years. It has 80 percent of the province’s land mass and only 5.6 percent of the population. It lies in the boreal shield, an entirely different eco-zone from the St. Lawrence woodlands to the south, and it relies almost entirely on resource extraction. It has more First Nation members than the three territories and more francophones than the entire south of the province.

The first step in implementing Ontario’s Northern Growth Plan was to invest in brains. On August 31, the province announced a $5 million, five-year plan to create a Northern Policy Institute. The NPI will “boost the northern economy and help provide a stronger voice to Northern Ontario.”

The Northern Policy Institute is a response to the deep regional divisions in Ontario. Recognizing that it lacks real expertise in regional development, the province has begun the process of developing the necessary talent where it is needed.

This important initiative recognizes the growing need for independent analysis of policy issues at the regional level and the fact that each of the western provinces and the far north are doing better than Northern Ontario.

The NPI extends the long and highly successful Canadian tradition of fostering expertise in universities, then drawing on the pool of expertise to shape policy. This announcement comes four years after the province committed $5 million to create a research institute to examine public policy issues that affect Ontario. Like the earlier initiative, the NPI will be university-based, with a mandate to provide non-partisan policy research and analysis on key governmental issues.

The idea for the NPI developed separately at the two ends of the region. In 2006, municipal politicians in Northwestern Ontario were grappling with economic and demographic decline. The forestry industry was in shambles, mills had closed, regional alienation was once more on the rise.

Dr. Livio Di Matteo of Lakehead University proposed a research institute to help develop strategies. The Northwestern Policy Institute would be the research arm of the new, locally-controlled development agency, the Northwestern Ontario Regional Development Authority (NWORDA). Dr. Robert Rosehart, one-time president of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, and freshly appointed Northwestern Ontario Economic Facilitator, endorsed the idea of a policy institute.

A thousand kilometers to the east, but still in Northern Ontario, new Laurentian University president Dominic Giroux asked: “What policies, actions or programs related to universities should MEI and MNDM recommend to the provincial Growth Secretariat?” and “How can universities help economic growth in Northern Ontario?’’ The resulting report from the Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development recommended the creation of a cross-university policy “think-tank” involving policy researchers at all northern institutions. When the province’s Northern Growth Plan was finally released in 2011 it promised a northern policy institute.

The NPI will be split between the two major universities in Northern Ontario. The universities will provide in-kind support, housing the two branches on campus. The search for a founding director is underway.