NORTH BAY — In an incident tailor-made to fuel northern resentment, Lou Rinaldi (Liberal MPP for Northumberland-Quinte West) recently made what he thought was an off-camera remark on the legislature floor, allegedly calling northern Ontario a “no-man’s land.”
He was quick to explain that his comment “had absolutely nothing to do with northern Ontario, but was in response to [Nipissing Progressive Conservative MPP] Vic Fedeli’s comments” made earlier in the debate.
Whether or not this proves that Liberal government doesn’t care about the north, as the Progressive Conservatives now claim, is not so much the point.
Whatever the truth, the mere idea that a southern politician would say such a thing easily wounds increasingly thin-skinned northerners.
The most recent census figures show that northern Ontario population’s is declining: cities such as North Bay have lost more than 2,000 residents since 2011. The common refrain is that Queen’s Park is to blame for this and many other things: high energy rates killing off pulp and paper mills; the punitive Far North Act stifling development; and even the 1999 ban on the spring bear hunt shutting down tourist outfitters. While the government extended a spring bear hunt pilot program last year, antipathy to all things southern persists.
Despite this perception, the province has attempted to fix employment challenges in northern communities. The Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation, for example, is mandated to invest in northern businesses. It has provided more than $54 million to filmmakers since 2004, enticing a large number of productions to North Bay, and creating a new industry that employs hundreds. Many film productions – such as TV comedy series Letterkenny – are now filmed in Sudbury with the help of this program.
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Sault Ste. Marie is home to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation headquarters. Bombardier’s Thunder Bay plant is trying to keep up with vehicle orders from Metrolinx. The Ontario Northland Transportation Commission continues to operate out of North Bay. The McGuinty Liberals threatened to privatize the provincial agency, but the Wynne government changed direction and continues to pump millions of tax dollars into the city, again training and employing hundreds of residents.
Add this to the high-paying jobs at hospitals, school boards, universities, and colleges, and it becomes very clear that, despite a strong sense of alienation, northern Ontarian cities are incredibly reliant on government largesse.
To be sure many northern cities, such as North Bay, also have strong entrepreneurial cultures that stimulate business productivity. But, many of these businesses in one way or another require government support, such as Fednor programs designed to support innovation.
Many northerners will complain that these projects aren’t going to provide employment for everyone who needs a job, nor will they keep enough young people in their hometowns.
But while we complain that the province is not doing enough, we ultimately want to do it on our own. A renewed forestry industry, the massive ring of fire mining project, and growth in sectors including health, manufacturing, and biotechnology, all suggest a better future for the north. But for now, as southern Ontario populations grow particularly in cities, it seems as if the emptying-out of the north will continue. Perhaps northern Ontario really is becoming a no-man’s land.
David Tabachnick is a professor of political science at Nipissing University in North Bay.
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