THUNDER BAY, ON - November 10, 2009 - Michael Gravelle spoke passionately about the proposed growth plan for Northern Ontario at the Italian Cultural Centre last Monday Night. Born from the “Places to Grow” Act passed in 2005, a great deal of work has gone into creating a plan which will turn the tide on youth out-migration from our region, to a place with a stable modern economy.
The proposed plan focuses on the priorities for future development, and looks at possible ways in which future growth can occur. This public meeting presents a draft report where the public and principal stakeholders in the north’s future development can learn about the plan, have round table discussions. Study guides with room for comments and feed back about the plan were made available to the filled to capacity Galileo room. In addition to this a public microphone was set up to encourage questions and comments from the group.
It was an impressive crowd, with representation from First Nations communities, advanced education, civic leaders of all stripes, and people from the business community. They were all there to make sure that their concerns are not left out of the plan. Some were curious about what type of development the plan sees possible for their communities. I have been following the development of this plan for some time, and for the first time we had a member of the Federal government attend a local planning session. NDP member Bruce Hyer was at Monday’s meeting.
Nipigon’s Mayor Richard Harvey had some concerns about the plan. He wanted to know how do you measure the results of the plan so that you know it is working? A second concern was what are the timelines for the plan? Lastly he wanted accountability, who is responsible to make sure that the development measures suggested in the plan are actually followed?
It sounds as if Nipigon’s mayor is excited about this development process and does not want all of this effort to go to waste.
I have lived in Northern Ontario all my live and this is the first time that I have ever heard of a development plan for Northern Ontario. Historically there has been the settlement of the clay belt region in Northern Ontario. Immigrants were given land to farm, and the government of the day had hoped that this effort would create a vibrant economy in Ontario’s North. Needless to say that plan was created in the south and none of the planners had ever tried to plow a wet clay field with the black-flies in the summer, or had to stoke a wood stove when it was -40⁰ C. Surprisingly today agriculture and aquaculture is growing in Northern Ontario at quicker pace than most places in Canada.
While the plan is due to be delivered in the spring of 2010, we can see that some development in the north has already taken place along the guidelines of this plan. Thunder Bay has become a centre for medical care and research. The recently announced and funded CRIBE institute will explore options for the regional economy in the Bio-Forestry sector. Perhaps this institute can help revive our forestry industry. Every time I drive by the CRC discoveries centre on Munro Street I have reason to smile. This is a great beginning for a new economy in the north and it is exciting to watch it unfold.
The Minister of Mines, Northern Development and Forestry like to portray the money being spent on power transmission lines across the north as a big project for the north. It could be argued that it is at least equally important for the south of Ontario. There are number of rivers in the north with great hydro-electric potential, and these new transmission lines will deliver that power to a hungry market in the south. The new power lines will also remove the bottle neck at Wawa, allowing for the free flow of power from the north to the south. To the minister’s credit the project will create jobs in the north, and many more areas such as the Musselwhite Gold mine will be able to expand because the power it needs can be supplied from the new infrastructure. As well many First Nations Communities will no longer have to rely on diesel generated electric power.
On a different note, I used this occasion to question the Minister about the Abitibi-Bowater pension crisis. Gravelle said after this morning’s meeting “I could not be more aware of all the issues involved in this situation, and I am working very hard to find a solution to this problem”. Abitibi-Bowater has until December 12th to submit a restructuring plan to the Ontario courts. A key element of this plan is a new labour agreement. If the company cannot address the shortfall in the pension plans then there will be no labour agreement and the company will be liquidated. Together the company and the union have proposed a plan whereby the pension assets would be placed in trust and allowed to recover with the financial markets. This requires more time than the bankruptcy protection period allows. The pension recovery plan calls for the Federal and Provincial governments to approve the plan and also to guarantee the plan. This is a viable option; with luck no funding from the tax player will be needed. It just needs time. Faced with an out of control deficit, union leaders are worried that the leaders of Canada’s newest have-not province will not protect their worker’s pensions. After all it is government policy that allowed these pensions to go underfunded. With Abitibi-Bowater out of the North a huge part of the economic policy will have to be redrawn.