Promoting regional autonomy as a campaign issue raises expectations – by Lloyd H. Mack (Kenora Daily Miner & News – December 13, 2012)

During my tenure in Kenora I have often thought there was a closer affinity between this region of the country and Manitoba than Southern Ontario. So it only makes sense a former ‘Toban, Glen Murray, would call for the creation of a regional government for Northern Ontario.

Murray, who served as mayor of Winnipeg from 1998 to 2004, now lives in Toronto and is MPP for Toronto Centre. He’s presently on the campaign trail as a candidate in the 2013 Ontario Liberal Party leadership race. At an all-candidates debate in Thunder Bay on Sunday, Murray displayed an understanding of northern and rural issues by voicing the idea of a regional government that would administrate transportation, energy and regionally relevant legislation such as the Northern Growth Act and the Far North Act.

Four of Murray’s rivals embraced the idea of giving northerners a louder voice in decisions that directly affect them, but make no mistake none of the leadership candidates are using the ‘S’ word. In fact, Kathleen Wynne cautioned this kind of policy idea can’t be viewed as the Liberal Party supporting the idea of Northern Ontario separating from the rest of the province.

But Murray drew a parallel between how a regional government could address the unique needs of the North and the way the 2007 City of Toronto Act allowed the province’s population centre to levy taxes for administrating some of its provincial affairs.

Northern Ontario doesn’t normally get that kind of consideration. I’m with the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association in calling not only on the Liberal leadership candidates but Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives and NDP to share whether they have a fresh approach to dealing with Northern Ontario after the neglect of Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Murray’s idea to expend an effort to fertilize a stronger relationship with the North is not a new one.

Even before Leo Bernier grew into the King of the North, Premier John Robarts led a delegation of 75 MPPs, including 14 cabinet ministers, on a 2,000-mile, 10-day rail trip through Northwestern Ontario in the fall of 1968 to provide an opportunity to study first hand some of the problems that are unique to the northern portion of the province.

“The whole purpose of the tour,” Roberts said at the time, “is to give the members of the Legislature a greater appreciation of the vital contribution this area makes to the economy of the province as a whole.”

Whether Murray is familiar with Robarts — who by the way was born in Banff, Alberta, which makes him the only Ontario premier not to have been born in Ontario — and the 1968 northern tour is not known. He may just as well have been drawing on history gained as Winnipeg mayor.

After all, in 1968, then Winnipeg mayor Steve Juba suggested extending the boundaries of Manitoba to the cities of Port Arthur and Fort William in order to create a competitive, yet healthy attitude for the province of Manitoba.

Then-Manitoba premier Walter Weir responded to Juba’s comment stating “there is nothing sacrosanct about arbitrary boundaries,” adding there should be changes in provincial boundaries, “the main reason being the will of the people.” John M. Reid, Kenora-Rainy River MP at the time, said the idea of joining of Manitoba was not the proper approach but suggested consideration might well be given to the creation of two provinces within Ontario.

Both ideas have been bantered around again and again. As recently as 2006, the Central Canada Public Policy Research Trust was reviewing alternative political structures including a new political relationship with the province of Ontario, separation from Ontario and merger with Manitoba.

Kenora Mayor Dave Canfield sat on the three-member trust and eventually pushed aside talk of joining Manitoba. He said the solution wasn’t in separation from Ontario, but in better relations with Queen’s Park.

This week, Canfield insisted Northwestern Ontario needs an independent deal from Northeastern Ontario, but said the concept of the decision-making process in the Northwest, by the Northwest for the Northwest is what has been asked for for years.

Even Ed Deibel, who formed the Northern Ontario Heritage Party in the 1970s, long ago stopped advocating full separation of the region from the province. A suggested seven per cent tax to heating and electricity in the April 1973 provincial budget of Premier Bill Davis led to the formation of the Northern Ontario Heritage Party by 1977. The party was formed to campaign for provincial status for Northern Ontario, but later dropped the idea from its platform, and continued to promote Northern Ontario’s interests within Ontario until disbanding in the 1980s without ever electing a member to the provincial legislative assembly.

Deibel began reviving the party in 2010 and the party received 683 votes in the 2011 Ontario election.

In the late ‘90s, when the issues were the spring bear hunt and the Mike Harris government’s Lands for Life policy, there was talk of forming a Northern Coalition Party to run in the provincial election, separating from southern Ontario or, at the very least, having legislation to protect northern interests when decisions were made that directly affect the north.

I recall Canfield, then the mayor of Jaffray Melick, being a guest with other northern politicians on TVO’s Studio 2 and alluding to the underlying problem of the issues at the time being a lack of understanding of the north among southern Ontarians.

My point would be why keep banging our head against a wall? There is just not enough former Tobans pursuing political aspirations in Ontario to give us the needed edge.

For the original version of this article, please go to the Kenora Daily Miner News website: