High-speed internet could be the key to speed up development in Ontario’s North

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By JOHN DEVINE

Special to Ontario Construction News

The 2011 Growth Plan for Northern Ontario is due for an overhaul from the Province, which says the 25-year plan created by the previous Liberal government is long on aspirations but short on specifics.

The plan, according to Drew Campbell, Senior Issues and Media Advisor, Communications Branch | Northern Development and Mines, was intended to provide guidance to align provincial decision-making and investment for economic and population growth in Northern Ontario.

“Overall, the plan is aspirational and lacks action-oriented initiatives with no mechanism to track progress. Since we have passed the ten-year release of this plan, our government is required to conduct a thorough legislative review. We are currently embarking on this process, and we will decide on the future of the growth plan for Northern Ontario in the coming months.”

It was the second growth plan to emerge from the 2005 Places to Grow Act, which specified how development was to occur in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area. That document set growth and employment targets for the region’s urban centres.

The plan for Northern Ontario detailed three initial implementation stages: developing a Northern Multimodal Transportation Strategy, piloting two regional economic development planning areas, and creating a new Northern Policy Institute.

The independent, non-profit think tank was launched in 2012, and established three objectives in its first five-year business plan in 2013, said NPI’s CEO and President, Charles Cirtwill. They are:

  • To measure growth in Ontario’s northern regions
    • To build human capacity in our communities
  • To help enhance regional self-sufficiency

“In terms of measuring growth in Northern Ontario, which could then be seen as measuring the impact of the (growth plan) … we deliver an annual State of the North presentation,” he continued.

COVID-19 restrictions prevented the institute from preparing a 2020 update, but a 2021 edition is in the works. The 2019 document presents a wide-ranging view of issues impacting Northern Ontario, including: drinking water advisories, crime, education, employment, environmental concerns, demographics (including Indigenous populations), migration to and from the region, employment and economic stats, and building permits.

Notable highlights include:

  • Education: Increase in college and university attainment in the northwest; increase in college, decrease in no certificate or degree in the northeast
  • Indigenous population: Increasing share labour force in almost every district by 2030
  • Migration: Increase in net migration since 2006 in the northwest; steady and significant increase in net migration since 2014 in the northeast
  • Labour force since 2008: Unemployment rates consistently falling in northwest; in northeast an early spike, but is now returning to 2008 levels. Northeastern Ontario slowly closing the gap, nearly on par with Ontario for full-time employment in 2018. Higher youth employment in northeast and northwest, increasing since 2011
  • Building permits: both northern regions showed a decrease in permits from 2017
  • The economy: Slight increase in business bankruptcies in the northeast since 2016, slight decrease in the northwest
  • Medium income: Higher full-time, full-year median employment income across several northern districts, compared to Ontario

The ‘bottom line’ for Northern Ontario, according to the report, in 2019 was:

  • Environment: Mixed results
    • Social: Continued progress
  • Demographics: A big challenge, but lots of opportunities
  • Employment: Continued solid numbers for youth, growth in FT jobs
  • Economic: Little growth, but diverse economy, more service than goods based Income: Many northern districts outperform the province

Geographically and politically, the ‘North’ is a region that includes the districts of Algoma, Cochrane, Kenora, Manitoulin, Nipissing, Parry Sound, Rainy River, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, and Timiskaming. The region encompasses a land area of 806,000 kilometres, about 88 per cent of all of Ontario. Despite its size, its 780,000 people make up only six percent of Ontario’s total population.

northern highway

Its sheer size and relatively small population would seem to make equitable growth and opportunity across the region a formidable challenge. Building on the aspirations of the initial plan, Campbell says the province is delivering on new infrastructure projects, including expanding broadband.

“The 2021 budget commits a historic new investment of $2.8 billion in broadband infrastructure to ensure that every region in the province has access to reliable broadband services by 2025,” he said.

“This investment builds on Up to Speed: Ontario’s Broadband and Cellular Action Plan, announced in 2019, to invest $315 million over five years to improve broadband connectivity in underserved and unserved communities, with a goal of increasing access for up to 220,000 households and businesses.”

Projects to expand broadband access and affordability in the North include last year’s agreement with the Mishkeegogamang Ojibway Nation community in Northwestern Ontario. The community and its more than 600 residents received $179,040 through the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC) to purchase and install two 200-foot broadband towers.

A focus on jobs and skills training is also part of the government’s northern focus.

“On Feb. 11, we launched the new and improved Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC) programs that support more projects in rural northern communities and make it easier for more people and businesses to apply. The programs target existing and emerging markets, provide more work opportunities for Indigenous people, and address the skilled labour shortage in the North,” said Campbell.

An oft-discussed development potential is the so-called Ring of Fire, the mineral rich area of Northern Ontario. Last year the Province reached an agreement with the Marten Falls First Nation, and the Webequie First Nation to advance the planning and development of a proposed Northern Road Link.

“The development of the Ring of Fire is a worthwhile initiative for economic development in the North. As countries move to produce more critical minerals to support a transition to greener economy, it is important that we look at the Ring of Fire seriously,” said Campbell.

“We said we would build a road to the Ring of Fire, and we are working with our incredible partners in the Marten Falls First Nation and Webequie First Nation to do just that and make sure we do it right.”

He added that the province will continue to work with Indigenous communities to create jobs, generate revenue, and build new infrastructure to bring economic prosperity to communities in the North.

“Ontario is committed to meeting its constitutional duty to consult with Indigenous communities and strives to strengthen relationships with communities as part of our goals to make reconciliation real and improve the quality of life for all in our province.”

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