Kathleen Wynne arrives in Little Current, Manitoulin Island, in a big black SUV, surrounded by all the trappings of being premier of Ontario. There are the omnipresent staffers who do the advance work and try to keep her on schedule. And there is the Ontario Provincial Police security detail trying to look unobtrusive but not quite succeeding.
Wynne has decided to drop in on the Manitoulin Country Fest. It’s a blazingly hot day on the world’s largest freshwater island, and probably the last thing on anyone’s mind in this town of 2,700 people is politics. A smallish crowd has come to hear country music, and while Wynne doesn’t want to interrupt their enjoyment of the day, this is Day Two of her current northern swing.
And so, she will do the thing she is so good at ̶ shake some hands, make small talk with the locals, meet some island politicians, hear about their concerns, check out what’s on offer at the booths, and listen. Wynne’s ability to empathize with a sizeable chunk of the Ontario public is what, in large measure, brought her to the premier’s office in 2013, and if she’s going to stay there, she knows she has to continue to convince Ontarians that in spite of all her big ideas about cap-and-trade pollution control, massive infrastructure investment, and progress on social justice issues, she still understands their daily travails and is for them.
But her northern swing comes at a delicate time. For the third time in the last half century, the north’s disaffection for Queen’s Park has bubbled up in the form of a new political party, quite simply called the Northern Ontario Party. It’s now an officially registered entity, and aims to run candidates in the 11 northern ridings in the 2018 Ontario election.
At first blush, one wonders why these political winds would be blowing so strongly right now. After all, hasn’t Ontario seen this movie before? In the 1970s, the new Northern Ontario Heritage Party tried to strike fear into Premier Bill Davis’s government, but the effort fell flat. In 1990, the new Confederation of Regions Party captured some attention and a lot of votes actually ̶ 21 per cent of the vote in Sault Ste. Marie; 18 per cent of the vote in Nickel Belt, outside Sudbury. But again, the protest movement fizzled without electing a single member. But it sure did make a lot of people concerned thanks to part of its message, which was virulently anti-French.
Without meaning to sound dismissive of the north’s concerns, here we are again ̶ the frustration of northerners at having all the decisions made “down south” boiling over and manifesting itself with another political movement.
On the one hand, it is a curious development. There are 11 seats in the North, and they’re quite evenly distributed: the NDP has five, the Liberals four, and the PCs two. The NDP has always been strong in the North. PC Leader Patrick Brown boasts of having made 20 trips to the region during his two years as leader, so concerned is he about northern issues. Even the governing Liberals have significant northern representation in the cabinet (David Orazietti from the Sault, Bill Mauro and Michael Gravelle from Thunder Bay, and Glenn Thibeault from Sudbury).
No, this latest expression of northern angst seems aimed at all the traditional parties, and frankly, none of those parties quite knows what it’s all about. Living in northern Ontario certainly requires a different kind of hardiness not needed in the south. Public services are much farther away from home, or not available at all. Electricity prices are through the roof, not because the cost of the power itself is so high, but because the distribution charges to get that power to market are so much higher, because of the lack of population density.
But none of that is particularly new.
Having spent a few weeks in the north this summer, I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers. But one does wonder whether northern Ontario is going through its own version of America’s Tea Party, or Trumpism, or the United Kingdom’s Brexit. Too many people have lost faith in the established institutions and simply want something else. Premier Wynne will be heading to Kenora soon, where she’ll find some of her citizens who want to join Manitoba. They already live and play in Manitoba’s time zone, are so much closer to Winnipeg than Toronto, and feel ever so distant from Ontario’s decision-makers. And others in the north want to separate from the rest of Ontario altogether, creating their own province. Ironically, with the price of what’s in the ground fetching not nearly the high prices they once did, many observers would say this is a particularly foolish time, economically speaking, for the north to separate. But as we saw with the Brexit debate and are seeing with Donald Trump’s ascendancy, these decisions are often not made for logical reasons. They’re emotional. They’re experienced at a gut level.
And we ignore these phenomena at our peril.
May we have a moment of your time?
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