Northern Ontario falling short of its potential

By MPP Toby Barrett

It may be a while yet before Ontarians look to the north as a place to start a good career or open a new business.

The recent withdrawal of Cliffs Natural Resources from the Ring of Fire mineral belt and the ongoing decline of forestry do not bode well for the future of northern Ontario. Cliffs, the largest private-sector developer in the Ring of Fire, blamed its decision to withdraw on the slow progress of building access roads, unresolved land claims and environmental assessment red tape

The Ring of Fire in the James Bay lowlands has an estimated $30 – $50-billion worth of minerals, particularly chromite – one of the most important commodities on the planet. Essential in the making of stainless steel, the mining and processing of Ontario’s chromite deposits could provide jobs and new tax revenues for over 100 years. The deposit is also rich in copper, nickel and zinc.

Ontarians continue to stand in employment lines because government hasn’t done the work necessary to help companies tap into the rich resource potential of the Ring of Fire and the jobs it will create.

The obstacles are well known. Before mining can begin, a road or rail line will have to be developed to link the isolated mining sites to the rest of Northern Ontario. A reliable power supply – realistically-priced power – is needed. There has to be a streamlined regulatory framework to set up new mines. Finally, there have to be effective negotiations with the local First Nation communities, so they can share in the jobs and wealth.

Our north was founded on traditional job-creating industries like mining and forestry that solidified Ontario as the economic engine of Canada. As with mining, our forestry industry once led the nation. Today, it ranks near the bottom. Since 2003, eight out of every 10 pulp mills in Ontario have closed their doors. Almost 43 per cent of forestry jobs were lost between 2004 and 2011.

The current government believes the north should be protected from the very people who call it home. The forest industry is being hurt by increased protection for a wide variety of species under the Endangered Species Act. This legislation does not reflect science or the realities on the ground. These changes will severely restrict the amount of forest available for harvest.

Despite recent challenges, we remain optimistic the forest industry is primed for recovery. Ontario is in a position to take advantage of improving markets both at home and abroad. Breakthroughs in innovative engineered wood products are leading to stronger and stronger construction materials.

Canada was founded on traditional natural resources. Mining and forestry can once again be a healthy industry with significant positive effects on Ontario’s entire economy.

And yet, northern Ontario is falling far short of its potential today. The Ring of Fire is the greatest mining discovery of a lifetime, but the project has gone nowhere. Our once-burgeoning forest industry has shrunk and mills have closed. The entrepreneurial spirit that built the north has been crushed under the weight of government regulations and environmental rules that seem designed to stop growth and scare away industry.

There is a better way, and it starts with a government approach that understands and respects the north.