We need made in the North solutions to economic woes

Kudos to the folks at FedNor and LAMBAC for reaching out to stakeholders in communities both large and small across Northern Ontario, seeking input on what direction and policies the government agency should pursue in the near-term future as they seek to improve the economic development of the North. It is a tack that more government agencies should track if the serious issues that face the Northern Ontario economy are to be met successfully.

There is an old adage that one can’t see the forest for the trees, and it has certainly seemed to have been the go to approach of governments of all stripes over the years—that paternal air that the government knows what is best for us. But if you want to know what’s going on near the roots of the matter when it comes to a forest, you might well be advised to check in with a few lumberjacks on the ground and, these days at least, a few of the environmentalists chained to the few remaining old growth jewels.

Of course the problems facing the North are hardly new and generally well-known by all of the players, but it is in finding innovative solutions to the challenges facing this region in these times of revolutionary change taking place in the global economy that such consultations will pan the gold.

Manitoulin Island can be viewed as a microcosm of Northern Ontario, with a small population spread across a huge geographic landscape that a handful of larger communities tend to dominate, while tiny hamlets slowly shrink with each passing generation. Transportation is a major issue that requires innovative solutions, and indeed such solutions are being pursued by organizations such as the March of Dimes, that is looking to think outside the box by bringing together First Nations and non-Native communities in a collaborative effort to meet the challenge. When travelling from one Island community to another is a $100 decision, most people will defer that travel unless such a journey is critical. This does none of our communities any good whatsoever and a great deal of harm.

This is not to disparage the taxi companies that provide the transportation, they are providing a great service through their efforts, but those resources are highly limited by the economies of scale, and while one person travels from Little Current to Wiikwemkoong others cannot book a timely ride from home to a doctor’s appointment a few blocks away.

Issues such as finding affordable rental housing for workers who provide vital labour for nascent industries and small businesses, getting workers to the worksite without it costing the whole day’s wages to get there, moving product that ‘last mile’ that entails costs far out of proportion to the distance. These challenges have solutions, they just wait to be discovered, and when they are, governments need to step up to facilitate their development until they are sustainable on their own merits.

But we can’t just sit back, complain and expect the federal and provincial governments to solve the issues facing our communities in the North. Local governments and communities have to step up to do their own part in making our communities more economically viable and sustainable. The first step along that path is that each of us must start by working better together and becoming more mutually supportive of each of our strengths.

Longstanding rivalries have a great place in sports, but not so much when it comes to creating a mutually beneficial economic environment and a tide that will lift all of our boats. We must move beyond viewing economic opportunities as a zero-sum game where if one of us benefits the others lose.

On an individual level, we must each of us begin to more seriously explore the local availability of goods and services to be found within our own communities close to home—a broader application of the popular eat local movement if you like.

There is also an unfortunate trend for shoppers to rarely look westward when heading out to shop, too often assuming that better deals are to be found to the east. That isn’t always the case and when money moves around the Island a few rounds before wandering across the bridge (or ferry) it multiplies under the basic laws of economics to improve the overall economy.

Many of the solutions to our challenges lie under our very noses, if we should only find time and energy to look. We will soon discover that it is in all of our best interests.