A map of the future [Northwestern Ontario/Ring of Fire] – economically speaking – by David Robinson (Northern Ontario Business – January 2013)

Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business  provides Canadians and international investors with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North. Dr. David Robinson is an economist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada.  drobinson@laurentian.ca

As minister of northern development and mines, Rick Bartolucci has published the most important development map of Northern Ontario. It isn’t a map of what he is doing, or even what he plans to do-this map shows what others have stopped doing. But with a bit of imagination the map also shows Northern Ontario’s future.

Strange to say, the map didn’t get into the Northern Growth Plan. Maybe the team that wrote the plan didn’t realize what they had. After all, why do we care where all the abandoned mines in Northern Ontario happen to be? It’s just one of the many neat maps available on the Ministry Northern Development and of Mines website.

It is the unsurprising information in this map that matters. The map shows that there are a lot of abandoned mines. We all knew that, although we probably didn’t know just how many. The map shows that mines tend to be found close to railroad lines and major highways. That isn’t very surprising either. The third, not very surprising but important fact, is there are only four abandoned mines in the northwest quarter of the province.

So why is all this unsurprising information important? Because the northwest will eventually have as many abandoned mines as the rest of the province.  And before they can be abandoned, they will have to be developed. The map really tells us that several hundred mines will be developed in the northwest over the next 100 years.

There are already 15 mines that will probably be developed in a 25-kilometre-long strip near McFauld’s Lake. It makes sense to expect there will eventually be 50 or 100 in that area alone. There are more than 100 in the Timmins area, and similar numbers in the Sudbury area.

Can we be sure that these other mines will develop? You’d have to be crazy to bet against it. Over the next 50 years the world will demand more ore than has been extracted in the history of mankind.

Metal prices will keep rising. Transportation in the region will improve. The rate of development will probably accelerate over the next century. Eventually there will be abandoned mines everywhere.

And this means that Rick Bartolucci has a very big job ahead. As minister of northern development and mines, he has to lay the foundation for the development of a region larger than Spain. He has to plan for a population in the Ring of Fire that could reach 60,000. He has to make sure that the development of the region is sustainable.

So what’s Rick’s plan to make sure that all this mining leaves more than holes in the North? How will he make sure commu¬nities end up stronger, that all Northerners gain, and that we don’t end up poorer after the re¬sources run out?

Queen’s University economist John Hartwick did that math to find the solution: Rick should invest the profits from non-renewable resources into productive capital in Northern Ontario. It is almost a no-brainer when you think about it. Natural resources are a kind of wealth. If you don’t replace what you use, you end up poorer.

Since you can’t use profits from mines to make more minerals, you have to invest in a different kind of productive capacity. The best choice is to invest in making the people of the North more productive. The most productive investment in people is to make sure children are well fed and well educated.

So we have a pretty simple proposal for Rick’s new Northern Growth Plan: every penny the government gets from mining should be reinvested in Northern children. And the children that offer the highest return on our investment will be the children in our poorest, least educated, and most remote communities. Most of those are probably First Nations communities, but that’s not why we pick them. We invest where we get the biggest return.

We are at the beginning of the last great expansion for the Province of Ontario. It is an historic transformation. It could be a model for the entire world. It could also be a total disaster. The next few years will decide what gets written on Rick Bartolucci’s tombstone.