Northern Ontario will be getting much-demanded investments in job creation and communications, according to the Progressive Conservative government’s first budget, presented on Thursday in downtown Toronto.
Vic Fedeli, finance minister and MPP for Nipissing, stated in his budget speech at the legislature that, “as a proud northerner, we know that northern Ontario has the potential to make an even greater contribution to the cultural and economic success of our province.”
Yet details on many issues high on northerners’ priority lists — including transportation and resource extraction — were lacking. And with a review of the Far North Act just wrapping up, a number of big announcements are still on their way.
Here’s a closer look at what the 2019 budget has in store for northern Ontario.
Resource and economic development
Greg Rickford, minister of energy, northern development and mines, said at Queen’s Park last week that the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund would “continue to be a key driver for creating economic opportunities across northern Ontario.” The budget makes good on that promise: the Tories have recommitted $100 million to the NOHF, maintaining the funding level set by the previous Liberal government.
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There were no announcements about the proposal to repeal the Far North Act, which underwent a 45-day review that ended Thursday. But the government did reiterate that it is “committed to reducing red tape and restrictions that are blocking important economic-development projects in the far north of Ontario, including the Ring of Fire.”
The government announced that it would introduce a “Mining Working Group,” to be chaired by the energy minister and include members of the mining, exploration, and prospecting industries, as well as Indigenous businesses; it will also conduct public online consultations as part of the development of a new forestry strategy.
Jobs in the north
Political leaders in northern Ontario have been trying to increase their declining populations and fill skilled-labour shortages.
The budget would give them a hand. The Northern Ontario Internship Program, which is supported via funding from the NOHF, will no longer require that applicants be recent graduates of post-secondary institutions. Instead, the program will be available to new entrants into the workforce, people transitioning careers, and the unemployed and underemployed.
The program will be divided into two streams: a skilled-labour internship and an Indigenous internship. “The streams highlight the importance of the North’s Indigenous population to the region’s economy and the issue of skills shortages in areas such as the skilled trades,” the budget states.
Connecting north to south
Advocacy groups in northern Ontario, including the Northeastern Ontario Rail Network, have demanded that Ontario Northland re-establish passenger-rail service between Toronto and Cochrane. “The group says passenger rail would offer reliable, efficient and practical regional transportation for medium to long distances, especially during winter months,” reported the North Bay Nugget earlier this year. Fedeli told the newspaper that it was still the government’s intention to restore passenger-rail service to the north.
But the budget lacked a firm commitment to achieving that goal. Instead, it states that the government will continue to review transportation options, with an aim of “identifying opportunities for a modern, sustainable transportation system in northern Ontario.”
The only substantial transportation announcement affecting the north pertained to drivers. The government will widen sections of Highway 69 and Highway 11/17 between Kenora and the Manitoba border, turning them into four-lane roads.
Access to broadband and cellular networks in rural and northern communities is often spotty, if not non-existent. The lack of high-speed internet service can be detrimental to residents: in communities that no longer have brick-and-mortar banks, for instance, online banking may be the only option. And that option doesn’t exist if you can’t access the internet.
The budget includes a $315 million investment aimed at expanding broadband and cellular infrastructure across Ontario over five years. It states that the government will release further details of its broadband and cellular strategy later this year.