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Why Northern Ontario is important for both the leaders and the economy

The winding roads of Northern Ontario skirt around many of its most valuable assets – mines, forest plots and mills are largely hidden in the countryside and accessible only by dirt roads and trails.

But as the province struggles to pull itself back from economic ruin, those assets aren’t going to stay hidden for long. Residents considering the wealth of riches that wait to be extracted have a sinking suspicion that they will benefit the least from the region’s resource boom.

Read the story in the Globe and Mail

They are concerned the good jobs – those involving processing and research – will pass them by as Southern Ontario towns position themselves to take advantage of the North’s lack of infrastructure and comparatively low number of skilled trades people.

Once they would have been resigned to their fate – but that’s changing. As the province’s top politicians descend on Thunder Bay for a debate on Friday, all eyes are on the region and its possibilities. It’s a scene also playing out in resource-rich but job-poor communities across the country, particularly in the Northwest Territories and Alberta.

The attention the region is receiving in the provincial election campaign far outweighs its 14 seats in the legislature as the province grapples with a $14-billion deficit and watches helplessly as manufacturing jobs that once powered the province’s economy vanish.

Federal politicians campaigned hard here in the spring. This fall, provincial leaders are making frequent pilgrimages to cities such as Thunder Bay and New Liskeard to talk about their plans for the region.

“For the North to be getting this much attention is unheard of,” said Laure Paquette, a professor at Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University. “There is really big long-term economic potential, but people don’t know how to play their cards. Local politicians don’t know how to handle the attention.”

Ontario’s north accounts for 90 per cent of the province’s land mass and only 6 per cent of its population. The drive to Kenora from Toronto takes about 21 hours.

While the forestry sector has waned in the past decade, mining exploration and investment have ballooned. Last year, companies spent $8.5-billion seeking and developing mine sites.

That number could increase exponentially with development in the Ring of Fire – a swath of land in a northwestern corner of the province that is rich in the stainless-steel component chromite.

A single diamond mine – the province’s first, near Attawapiskat – added 600 jobs when it was built in 2008 and now has a permanent staff of 400. It is expected to bring $6.7-billion to the provincial economy before it ends its 17-year operation.

“That resonates because the only real issue here is the economy,” Prof. Paquette said.

Rod McKay, a mill worker who is the Progressive Conservative candidate in Kenora-Rainy River, says development policies should support the financial security of Northerners.

“If we’re going to return Ontario to a ‘have’ province, we’ll need to allow the wealth of the north to stay in the north,” he said.

That means more mills such as the one Weyerhaeuser operates just outside Kenora. The 4.5-hectare indoor facility smashes wood and then puts it back together in different shapes and configurations.

Manager Bill Candline said the mill is hiring because things are getting busy as the company finds new ways to market its wood. Electricians and millwrights are particularly needed.

“What we’re doing is very high-tech,” Mr. Candline said as he watched the debarker shave logs. “This isn’t just cutting and chopping. These are good-paying jobs, and we’re definitely one of the employers of choice in the region.”

Even so, many workers opt to commute to Alberta for higher wages. “But they don’t want to leave permanently, they’d rather have good jobs here,” he said.

The Liberals unveiled a Northern plan last year and provided more details about plans to improve infrastructure and introduce an industrial electricity rate. The Conservatives and NDP also have Northern plans, and federal agencies have been trying to steer investment to the region.

But the efforts are disjointed, said Charles Conteh, an assistant professor of public policy at Brock University.

“There’s no real plan to support a systematic engagement in the North,” he said. “The problems are larger than the region – there needs to be a broad and intelligent discussion about how to battle the persistent decline of the mainstays of the economy.”

NDP candidate Sarah Campbell said it is not right to ship northern resources elsewhere for others to process for higher pay.

“There’s no reason why, if it’s managed properly, that we can’t have a robust local economy,” she said.

The south’s the target in battle for Northern Ontario

As the province’s political leaders plowed for votes in Southern Ontario, a more bare-knuckled version of democracy was breaking out in the North.

For the first time in 12 years, someone other than former NDP leader Howard Hampton will be sent to Queen’s Park to represent the sprawling 250,000-square-kilometre riding of Kenora–Rainy River. And the candidates are desperate to persuade voters they’ll find a way to bring jobs to a region that’s struggled to diversify from a forestry-based economy to one driven by both mining and tourism.

Read the story in the Globe and Mail

In a chalet-like conference room at a Super 8 motel, candidates argued fiercely over the fine details of northern development. But they agreed on one theme – the North and its wealth of natural resources are on the rise, and the south had best not stand in the way.

“There have been great ideas in the past,” said the Green Party’s Jo Jo Holiday, setting the tone in the opening minutes of the debate. “But they are Toronto people who think they know the North and think it goes no further than Sudbury. We are unique and we need to be treated as such.”

With Mr. Hampton out of the picture, NDP candidate (and former Hampton staffer) Sarah Campbell is in a tight fight with Liberal Anthony Leek and Progressive Conservative Rod McKay. The Northern Heritage Party – which dissolved decades ago but was recently resurrected in a bid to raise awareness of northern issues – is running Charmaine Romaniuk, an anthropology student from Lakehead University.

The party’s leaders have made northern development key portions of their platforms so far in the campaign, despite its relatively few legislative seats. Both the Liberals and NDP have visited already on campaign stops, and PC Leader Tim Hudak will face NDP Leader Andrea Horwath in a debate Friday night in Thunder Bay in what is being hailed as the first “northern” debate in recent history. (Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty had previously declined to participate.)

It’s a long way from the plowing matches in Eastern Ontario that the leaders took part in Tuesday, but both the NDP and Conservatives are promising to reduce the cost of electricity – a key issue in the North. And while they are likely to argue about the best way to develop northern resources, the 100 residents who braved the rain in Kenora and the candidates who want to represent them are more focused on local issues.

Campaign managers are working from a single truth: You don’t win over the riding’s 78,000 citizens with platforms, you win them over by campaigning against Toronto.

“It worked for Hampton for years and that’s what you’re seeing here tonight,” one manager said afterward.

While the candidates started out amicably, the debate quickly degenerated into a series of anecdotes and personal attacks the candidates said were borne out of a sense of frustration and a desire to move beyond planning to create jobs for the region.

Mr. McKay, for example, said he knew of specific examples of companies that considered bringing jobs to the region, but didn’t because of the amount of paperwork involved. He didn’t name names.

“Every day I got to work and I sit at an idle sawmill,” said Mr. McKay, who is the mill manager at Kenora Forest Products. “There is a lack of regard by Mr. McGuinty for the people and issues of Northern Ontario. I know our quality of life could be so much better and our economic security could be so much better with the right policies that reflect our northern way of life.”

While the mainstream parties have different policies, the end goals are largely the same – to keep more of the region’s wealth in the area by increasing its processing and refinement capabilities so materials are shipped elsewhere for value-added work.

There are also calls to widen highways and lower the cost of electricity to attract larger companies to set up in the region.

The NDP’s Ms. Campbell name-dropped Mr. Hampton several times during her remarks as she talked about how he tried to get a regional pricing structure introduced to lower hydro prices in the North. She also relied heavily on examples of how Manitoba managed to keep hydro rates low by ensuring the system is kept in public hands.

But her casual references riled Mr. McKay, whose attack against the former NDP leader set the tone for the rest of the night.

“She says how Howard has been talking about this for 12 years,” he said. “Well, that’s what you get when you don’t form a government and sit in opposition. All they can do is talk … we need to fix thing so they make sense instead of sitting down with environmentalists from Southern Ontario who don’t have any stake in our livelihoods in the North.”

As Mr. Hudak and Ms. Horwath prepare for their northern showdown, they may want to read over Ms. Romaniuk’s notes. After the other candidates bickered about each party’s record in office, she took to the lectern and shrugged her shoulders.

“I’m sure glad not to be involved in any of the actual arguments here,” she said. “There’s not a lot to fight with me about – I just want to see more jobs.”