Even if northern Ontario separation is ‘nonsense,’ it may still need a new deal

As the province sees a resurgence in calls for northern independence, a new report says what the north really needs is better regional governance


One thing David MacKinnon wants to be clear about: he doesn’t want his work being used to fan the flames of separatism.

“I think it’s nonsense, to be honest,” MacKinnon, a former CEO of the Ontario Development Corporation, tells TVO.org.

MacKinnon is talking about northern Ontario — comprising 90 per cent of the province’s land area while holding just six per cent of the population — which saw a resurgence of recurring political call for separatism this summer. Those calls came courtesy of the Northern Ontario Party that wants to carve out a jurisdiction separate from the southern part of the province.

While he has no time for outright separatism, MacKinnon lays out some real weaknesses in how Ontario governs its vast north in a report produced for the Northern Policy Institute this week.

“Northern Ontario has been relatively stagnant for a very long time — more than 35 years — and it’s time to look beyond the business cycle to find out why,” he says. While one-industry towns live and die by the vagaries of global commodity prices, or the details of a trade dispute with the United States, MacKinnon says the north’s real problem has been that its economy is poorly served by the structure of its government.

“If you don’t have modern, contemporary governance, your economic performance isn’t going to be as good as it could be.”

MacKinnon says local political leadership fragmented among dozens of towns and cities with no regional coordination, who too often focuses on the needs of the forestry and mining sectors, is one reason why the north has languished. Part of the solution is to bring in some of the forms of regional governance that are already common in the south, he argues.

For example, while southern Ontario is divided into counties and regional municipalities that can organize services among several different cities and towns, northern Ontario is primarily organized into districts that exist mostly as lines on a map and not as any kind of government— a legacy of the days when the province’s primary concern was extracting mineral and timber wealth from the north without much concern for how the small mining and lumber towns emerging there would organize themselves.

MacKinnon says that needs to change. He suggests reforming the districts as regional governments akin to their cousins in the south, which could at least begin to coordinate services between communities.

These reformed districts would necessarily also include elected members from First Nations and not just northern municipalities, MacKinnon says. Northern Ontario already has a higher proportion of Indigenous people than the province at large — a demographic trend that is expected to continue.

Read more here: tvo.org/article/current-affairs/the-next-ontario/even-if-northern-ontario-separation-is-nonsense-it-may-still-need-a-new-deal