FORT FRANCES—“If you could do one or two things to improve the long-term economic health of the north, what would they be?”
That’s the question Dr. Robert Rosehart has been asking communities around Northwestern Ontario over the past few months, including during a stop here Friday at the annual meeting of the Northwestern Ontario Associated Chamber of Commerce.
The province appointed Dr. Rosehart to the post of Northwestern Ontario economic facilitator back in June, with a mandate to co-ordinate efforts to improve the economic foundation of the region.
Since then, he’s been travelling around the region, holding more than 70 meetings to date with individuals and groups in nine municipalities (including a previous stop in Fort Frances) to get their input on economic concerns and what could be done to help ensure the long-term viability of Northwestern Ontario.
“We’ll call an end to the meetings sometime before the end of October, and then we have to focus on what we’re going to do with the recommendations—at least the ones we’re going to push the hardest,” Dr. Rosehart told NOACC delegates.
“We’ve already identified little teams of people that will flesh out the details on the recommendations because I realized that when you do a report like this for the government, you disappear and somebody else figures out whether it’s going to be a good idea,” he added.
“We’re doing this all in a pretty compressed time frame,” Dr. Rosehart admitted. “I will know whether we’ve been moderately successful, unsuccessful, or whatever when we see the spring budget.
“People ask, ‘What happens if the government changes Oct. 10?’ Well, I can tell you on Oct. 11, the issues and challenges facing Northwestern Ontario will be the same as they were on Oct. 10,” he stressed.
In his meetings all over the region, Dr. Rosehart has gotten a clear picture of the state of its resource-based economy.
“There are people out there who would be quite happy if another tree was never cut in Northwestern Ontario. But they don’t live up here,” he noted.
“The reality is there’s been quite a shakeout in the forestry business—there’s probably going to be more—but that industry is going to continue to be a significant player in the economy of Northwestern Ontario.
“So, having said that, and looking at the importance of those jobs, how can the government help [the] stability and viability of those companies?”
Dr. Rosehart said anyone who wants to start up a windmill or solar farm in Ontario will get a “sweetheart of a deal” in terms of selling the energy back into the grid.
The problem is, those sorts of operations create virtually no jobs.
“If you read the media these days, everybody’s big on bio-this and bio-that,” said Dr. Rosehart. “Well, a lot of this bio is out in the bush. It’s not coming out of the sky.
“It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the CO2 balance, it’s good for the companies to use this stuff rather than natural gas,” he added. “But it’s not going to happen in great degree unless there’s some nudge or encouragement.
“Is there some way the government could give a similar deal to companies to use waste wood and forestry slash to deal with some of their electricity issues and make their operations more viable?” asked Dr. Rosehart.
“I think in that area, there’s some promise.”
Dr. Rosehart said one sector that’s “unbelievably positive about opportunities in the northwest” is the mining sector.
“There’s record amounts of mining exploration going on in both the northeast and northwest,” he noted. “But we’re cautious there, as well—just because you’re doing exploration doesn’t mean you’re going to develop a mine.”
He added baseline geophysical data some companies are using is not always up-to-date and there must be more investment in geophysical mapping.
While mapping used to be a government-sponsored activity, it has since become the responsibility of individual communities, who have to compete for the limited funds the government does dole out.
“But believe me, if someone were to discover a mine, the government would be there to get the taxes from them,” said Dr. Rosehart.
“There are issues, but if you’re looking at the long-term improvement of the region, mining’s going to be a player,” he later added.
Dr. Rosehart also noted the economy of the entire region, including First Nations, is of concern in the report he’s preparing. He added there are First Nation political issues the government must deal with, as well as local First Nation community issues to be resolved.
“Those First Nations, by and large, and interested in improving the economic plight of their individual citizens,” he said.
Making no bones that the aforementioned political issues can be “20-year issues,” Dr. Rosehart added “individuals are not going to want to wait 12, 20, 30 years, so they are pressing for arrangements that will support revenue streams now.”
He also said the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association’s “Common Voice” initiative is worth a try to help the region get better heard by the province.
He recalled that back in the 1970s, groups like NOMA, NOACC, and others used to meet with the premier and cabinet as a sort of an “annual ritual,” and while some meetings still take place, “I don’t think it has the same impact anymore.”
“Part of it is the centralization of government and part of it is every lobby group you can think of lobbies the government, so when you go in to present your cases on behalf of Northwestern Ontario, you go, people listen, and then say, ‘Thank you. Next group.’
“And corn farmers from eastern Ontario come in and then some other group.
“I’m not wanting to put those groups down, but when I look at the geographic distinctiveness of this region, I think what used to be there used to be pretty good,” continued Dr. Rosehart.
“How do you get back to that? I think the ‘Common Voice’ is worth a try. But the big challenge there—and I’ve been saying this for a couple months—is getting 14 and upwards communities to be effective that way.
“You’re going to have to leave your baggage at the door,” he stressed, clarifying each community must agree to do what’s best for the group and not their individual interests.
Dr. Rosehart said he used to feel Queen’s Park believed the north began at Orangeville, but in all the discussions he’s had in his current work exercise, it’s apparent it’s Highway 401.
“I’ve never seen such a low understanding or interest in northern issues in terms of the conversations that we’ve had in Toronto,” he remarked. “Everybody is all wrapped up in their own little microworld—all sorts of multicultural and domestic issues.
“There’s manufacturing job losses all over the place. The only difference with those job losses is when the jobs are lost, there are replacement jobs that show up.
“It’s a much different situation than here in the north.”
Dr. Rosehart has been involved in other economic studies in the past and observed there are “two norths”—and that not all of Northern Ontario can be considered the same.
“Northeastern Ontario is booming,” he said. “It may not boom for long, but it’s booming right now.
“If you go to Sault Ste. Marie or Timmins or Sudbury, you’d never know there were any problems in the north, and that may be problematic for policy decision-makers because they to northeastern Ontario more often than they go to Northwestern Ontario.”
The climate for investment in Northwestern Ontario is “difficult” now, said Dr. Rosehart, noting paper companies used to write cheques for $200 million-$400 million for capital projects, and now hesitate at parting with $25 million-$30 million.
He mentioned the region took a little longer than other places to rebound from the 1981 recession—and never really fully came back from the one in 1991.
“And now you’ve got what people call the ‘perfect storm.’ You’ve got all these elements, like the low dollar, going on at the same time,” said Dr. Rosehart.
While no one knows yet what will result from Dr. Rosehart’s report, he believes the region can create a positive future for itself.
“I thought before we started . . . we might run into a feeling of despair and discouragement. But actually quite the opposite, there’s a lot of fighting spirit left in the communities we’ve been into,” he remarked.
“As I’ve said many times, you’re going to build many jobs around the kind of economy you have now and a lot of those ideas are going to come from northern entrepreneurs.
“They’re not going to come from somebody in Toronto that’s going to mystically decide to relocate here,” Dr. Rosehart stressed.
“It’s tough times. Nobody’s saying it’s not. But there’s a lot of ideas out there about how to improve it,” he added. “The communities need help, but it’s a better situation than I thought I would find.”
Born in Owen Sound, Dr. Rosehart holds B.A.Sc., M.A.Sc., and Ph.D. degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Waterloo.
He was a professor of chemical engineering at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay during the 1970s, prior to beginning his administrative career as dean in 1977.
Dr. Rosehart was president of Lakehead University for 13 years before being appointed as president of Sir Wilfrid Laurier University in 1997. In 1986, he chaired the seven-member Advisory Committee on Resource Dependent Communities in Northern Ontario.
He is chair of the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre Advisory Board; a member of the Association of Universities and Community Colleges Standing Advisory Committee on Educational Issues and Funding; and serves as an executive committee member of Canada’s Technology Triangle Inc., the Waterloo Region’s economic development partnership.
He also chairs the selection committee for the Government of Ontario’s Amethyst Awards, which recognize Ontario’s outstanding public servants.
(Fort Frances Times)