The north wants in: Why new ridings in Ontario’s most remote region won’t curb northern alienation

OPINION: Even with two new provincial seats, northern Ontario’s political influence will continue to wane, writes David Tabachnick
By David Tabachnick - Published on August 23, 2017
archway in North Bay
In the eyes of many politicians, the province ends well before North Bay — the so-called Gateway to the North. (Earl Andrew/wikimedia.org)

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Reflecting the same sentiment as the old Reform Party slogan — “The West Wants In” — there is broad agreement among northern Ontario residents that they aren’t getting their economic fair share and aren’t well represented. Despite recent initiatives at the provincial level to address these concerns, this grievance is unlikely to go away.

Northern Ontario makes up about 87 per cent of the province’s landmass yet is home to about 5 per cent of its population. It’s represented by 10 federal and 11 provincial ridings. It may seem, therefore, as if the region has more than its fair share of political clout, having already one extra provincial representative relative to its population. But most northerners feel that neither Parliament Hill nor Queen’s Park hear their concerns or have a clue about their culture. To them, it seems like most politicians think Ontario stops somewhere around Barrie or, for the well-heeled, in Muskoka. 

As the region’s influence has declined along with its population, northern Ontarians have developed a strong sense of alienation. While the Reform Party was able to convert western alienation into real political power and real change, northern Ontarians have little hope that party politics will alleviate their anxieties.

The recently resurrected Northern Ontario Party promises to begin “the process of creating Northern Ontario as a province with the same rights and privileges as all other Canadian provinces.” Passionate and serious about their goals, but understaffed and without a fundraising infrastructure, the NOP is — like its predecessor, the Northern Ontario Heritage Party — unlikely to win a single seat, let alone to achieve their goal of carving out an 11th province.

A recent decision to add two ridings to the region in time for the 2018 provincial election (one of which has a population that’s two-thirds Indigenous), may seem like a far better and long overdue remedy to the problem. The Far North Electoral Boundaries Commission, which proposed the redistricting, said in its final report, “We believe our proposals will lead to the more effective representation of Ontarians living in the Far North.”

It does, on the face of it, seem strange that the few densely populated blocks that make up the Toronto Centre riding are given the same representation as Kenora–Rainy River, which stretches over 336,783 square kilometres (about the size of Germany).

But along with these two new seats, the provincial government will also create 15 new ridings in the south, nearly all of which are to be located in and around the GTA. So while the commission went beyond the simple representation-by-population model, this latest round of redistricting will only water down the influence of the north further.  

For some, even those two seats give away too much. Toronto journalist Josh Dehaas contends that if you live in the south, the new ridings "should worry you. Your vote would count for less and your Charter rights might be violated.” He argues it’s undemocratic to allow the proposed district of Mushkegowuk, population 30,000, to have the same political clout as Niagara Falls, which four times as many people call home. By his logic, it is the south that will be the victim, losing power to the unfairly advantaged north.

The commission’s small nod to intra-provincial regionalism will do little to address the growing sense of alienation in the region. As demographics continue to skew south, much more will have to be done to recognize the great economic and cultural potential of northern Ontario.    

David Tabachnick is a professor of political science at Nipissing University in North Bay.

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