Traditionally, to mollify northerners and during times of anti Ontario government sentiment, a strong man is appointed as Minister of everything – basically to put out political brush fires. If one had a major problem you would go and see the Conservative or Liberal bagman (in charge of local party finances who had the ear of the Minister). A call would ensue and if the person was prominent enough the conflict would be resolved. Generally, the Lieutenant worked well for business, especially big business but not for the poor, Aboriginals, labour and more recently, environmentalists.
Powerful Northern Lieutenants have included: Wilf Spooner, Minister of Mines, Natural Resources and Municipal Affairs (Conservative member from Timmins,1957 to 1968); Leo Bernier, Minister of Mines and Northern Affairs, Minister of Lands and Forests becoming Minister of Natural Resources, (Conservative member from Sioux Lookout 1966 to 1987), David Ramsay, Minister of Correctional Services, Minister of Agriculture and food, Minister of Natural Resources and Ontario’s first Minster of Aboriginal Affairs. (elected as NDP from Temiskaming and crossed floor to Liberals, 1985 to 2011); and presently Michael Gravelle, Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry, recently added. (Liberal member from Thunder Bay, 1995 to present).
In the late 60’s anti government sentiment turned into a secessionist movement and a mini Queen’s Parks was established in Thunder Bay. Leo Bernier was elevated to “Emperor”. However, what the south giveth the south taketh away and as soon as the north calmed down the bureauracry was centralized back in Toronto. David Ramsay having run for leader of the Liberals was quietly and inexplicably dropped. The present Minister scurries between meetings and seldom has time for questions. Ministry staff monitor local situations however they are overstretched and attend many meetings where really, the elected Minister is needed.
For example, in meetings over the last five years regarding changes to forest tenure, northerners expressed a strong desire for local control of their forests. Fed up with a system of corporate dinosaurs that left vast clear cuts, unpaid wages to workers, bankrupt local contractors and devastated communities in their wake – reform was needed. In response what we get is a timid Forest Tenure Modernization Act . This act does not provide for community forests in which local northern Ontario communities would have decision-making authority over the use and future of northern forests. The legislation also failed to acknowledge and provide for Aboriginal and treaty rights, a key component in improving the situation of northern communities. In essence, what we are getting with minor tinkering – is more of the same.
Basically, the north is too big (83% of the province), too populous (about 800 thousand of us) and has too many issues. Consequently consultation doesn’t occur or is inadequate (i.e changes to the Mining Act, forest tenure reform, aboriginal affairs, etc.) One person, regardless of ability can’t substitute for a northern legislature. Authority can’t replace democracy. We’re a century overdue for a workable government in Northern Ontario.