Northern Voices

Date: September 29, 2017

This week I participated in the State of the North conference organized by the Northern Policy Institute in Timmins. It was a worthwhile gathering and well attended by a diverse set of community development and municipal stakeholders.

One theme was evidence-based solutions with a focus on demographic challenges. Currently, the population is declining in almost all northern districts. There were several practical examples of initiatives to attract immigrants provided by presenters from other provinces. A key take-away for me from this dialogue was that there is a precedent for regional allocation of immigrants who might be fast-tracked to solve local skills shortages through the Provincial Nominee Program. The Nova Scotia precedent might work for rural and northern communities in Ontario who are hard at work trying to attract immigrants – but only also if the vision and political will could be mustered for it at the provincial level, namely with the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. However, a quick review of the province’s strategy and progress reports shows little senior government attention is being paid to where new immigrants settle within the province. Northerners and rural southern communities alike who may hope for leadership on encouraging regional dispersion of immigrants by the province will not find it in the province’s strategy.   
As I listened to the presenters and table group discussion it was an opportunity for me to reflect on the difference and similarities between northern and southern rural situations. I heard many statements that could easily have come out of the mouths of rural southerners, statements that, while particular to northern issues, echo the same concerns and frustrations that rural southerners might voice. One stream of the discourse dealt with the level of attention or level of understanding among decision-makers and bureaucrats at Queen’s Park about the circumstances in the north and how a lack of appreciation leads to inadequate policy or programs. This is a familiar tune.  There was even one presenter with a provocative proposal that the north become its own province. Not something I hear often expressed seriously by southern rural stakeholders.   

While I sensed that not many of the conference participants were advocates of this radical idea, it served a purpose at the conference and stimulated a lot of discussion. It led many to voice the alternative idea that while people in the north might not be able to change perspectives in Queen’s Park, they certainly could - and needed to - work better together on regional solutions and initiatives. In my mind, that dialogue at the State of the North conference centres on the question of whether Ontario should be formally recognizing the importance of place-based development and a rural and northern policy framework that supports and encourages regional development and collaboration. We have pieces of it but not a coherent strategy. Watch for the forthcoming public release of the Rural Ontario Foresight Papers in which Dr. David Freshwater argues this very point. Read the author bios and Paper topics here; the Northern Policy Institute also provided a Northern Perspective for each of the six Papers. 

For this reason, among others, I think rural southerners and northerners can make common cause on many fronts and not just on this question.