Ontario has unveiled a 25-year plan to stimulate the embattled northern economy, but it’s a strategy critics say comes too late and provides no real road map for a recovery.
“This is all about ensuring that we find ways to continue to develop the north in a way that is sustainable, that doesn’t compromise the environment and also in a way, for the first time, that gives a bigger stake in it to our Aboriginal communities, so that our First Nations in particular can see a bright and promising future,” Premier Dalton McGuinty said after a speech in Belleville, Ont.
The government unveiled the long-awaited growth plan for northern Ontario on Friday, aiming to prepare the economy for changes ahead by strengthening the mining industry and creating regional economic zones.
It calls for partnerships between various colleges, universities and businesses to support research and train northerners for careers in growing fields. The plan also seeks to improve health care for aboriginal communities, promote green technologies and create an inter-regional transportation network.
“The true strength of the north is its people, their resourcefulness and their entrepreneurial spirit,” said Michael Gravelle, minister of northern development, mines and forestry.
“We’re harnessing these qualities to develop a growth plan for northern Ontario that is built by northerners, for northerners.”
The plan comes a day after the province posted a record deficit of $24.7 billion amid a dramatic drop in revenues, and on the same week that the legislature approved changes to Ontario’s Mining Act.
The mining, forestry, tourism and agriculture industries in the north contribute more than $23 billion annually to Ontario’s economy.
The New Democrats have long blasted the government for lacking a plan in the north, and warned economic recovery in many northern Ontario towns was being hampered by the province’s unwillingness to unlock wood supplies and allow new companies to set up shop where major forestry players have shut down operations.
Former NDP leader Howard Hampton, who represents the northern riding of Kenora-Rainy River, said the plan does nothing to bring the forestry jobs that have been lost as a result of “disastrous” hydro and trade policies – and includes no new initiatives.
“It’s as if the McGuinty Liberals are operating with blinders on,” said Hampton.
“Northern Ontario has lost 40,000 direct and indirect forestry jobs because of this government’s policies. This plan does nothing to fix the harm that’s been done.”
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said the plan was considerably behind schedule, adding that northern Ontario has one of the key areas of significant private-sector job loss.
“I certainly hope that Dalton McGuinty has a different approach than this tax-more, spend-more, regulate-more, outdated philosophy that’s chased jobs out of northern Ontario,” Hudak said.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation community wasn’t consulted during the process of drafting the plan, said Grand Chief Stan Beardy, but he remains optimistic that programs could be developed to benefit all northern residents, including First Nations.
“Definitely, we’re very interested,” he said. “We’re very curious what will come down.”
It’s difficult for First Nations communities in the north to tap into government programs aimed at economic development because the reserves are often isolated and don’t always have the necessary infrastructure or so-called “shovel-ready” projects required to qualify.
The government will now begin a consultation process, with the final plan expected at a later date.