KENORA – Over the Labour Day weekend the government announced $5 million in funding from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund (NOHFC) to create a policy institute for Northern Ontario.
The idea of creating of a northern “think tank” where recommendations are made to government that reflect the needs, expertise and vision of Northerners is a good one. For too long governments located in Southern Ontario have dictated what Northerners need and have used our resources to fill their coffers, while throwing us table scraps in return.
The problem with this recently announced Northern Policy Institute (NPI), however, lies in the implementation, and, I would also contend, the government’s disingenuous spirit behind their creation of the NPI.
It’s hard not to notice that all Liberal announcements related to northern policy have come at times when elections were either imminent or likely. Shortly before the 2007 election they commissioned Robert Rosehart to look at growth opportunities for the north. The report was released months after the election and was left to sit on shelves.
Shortly before the 2011 election the government announced a vague Northern Growth Plan, which was an attempt to appease Northerners. Having been reduced to a minority and with an election possible at any time, the government has suddenly decided to create the institute. It’s easy to be cynical given their track record.
The fact is, had this institute been created years ago we would now be in a situation where we could have concrete recommendations in hand and the Northern Growth Plan could have been created to implement them.
Those who lobbied for the institute wanted an “arms length organization” that could undertake “unbiased research”, but without committed long-term funding, this simply is not possible. After the first year, the institute will be forced to look to private interests for funding, and there is no way to know exactly who that will be or what type of input or control they will want in return.
If the government is genuine in its desire to hear northern voices, it would create the Northern Legislative Committee and respect the wishes of the majority of MPPs who voted in favour of its creation. While a policy institute best examines long-term strategies, the committee would focus its attention on immediate issues. It would be empowered to review and make amendments to all legislation (current and proposed) which impacts the north, summon cabinet ministers, senior government staff and other witnesses from the public who can provide valuable input on legislation and immediately affect change by reporting directly to the legislature. Unfortunately, the government has refused to create the committee.
What is most egregious about the creation of the NPI is the fact that $5 Million is being diverted from the NOHFC, a fund dedicated to providing money to economic development in Northern Ontario. A key criterion to receiving NOHFC funding is job creation and at a time when the province as a whole, and Northern Ontario in particular, are in desperate need of creating more jobs, this is money should be spent on direct job creation initiatives. To contrast, the Northern Committee would have little, if any, cost and would leave the NOHFC untouched.
The Northern Policy Institute is a good idea in principle, however, the way the government has gone about establishing it raises questions about its effectiveness, suitability to address immediate concerns and long-term sustainability.
Sarah Campbell MPP