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Those of us still or once of Northern Ontario had great hopes for the first budget by an NDP government.

Treasurer Floyd Laughren has represented Nickel Belt riding for 20 years. House Leader Shelley Martel and her father Elie before her have held a Sudbury riding even longer. The NDP and the CCF before it have been real factors in federal and provincial elections in Northern Ontario for half a century.

Did Laughren and company remember the North of the province in the budget? Yes . . . but not with much.

Was their analysis and concern for the region clear in either the budget or its associated papers? Yes . . . but not much.

Laughren spent 300 words on Northern Ontario, opening with: “Many northern communities, particularly single-industry towns, are under extreme pressure from long-term structural challenges. The north has the highest unemployment rate of any region in the province.”

What did Laughren have for this region with 80% of Ontario’s acreage but just a twelfth of its people?

In dollar terms, northerners will now save $15 million a year by not having to pay for their car registrations.

Northerners who must travel far for health care will find a special travel fund has $3.4 million more in it. And funds for Northern Ontario from a special anti-recession program will be four times larger than if allocation was on a per capita basis. Sapping this rather niggling generosity is the jump in the gasoline tax.

Probably the NDP’s biggest bonanza for the north is the $55 million more to be thrown this year at Indian bands, some half of which are in Northern Ontario.

Northern Ontario is a gargantuan, shield-shaped belt, roughly 500 miles deep from Hudson Bay to the Upper Lakes and the French River, and 1,000 miles wide from Quebec to Manitoba. It divides into two huge blocs: Northeastern Ontario with three sub-regions, the Clay Belt, Nickel Range and Algoma; and Northwestern Ontario with three massive parts, the Lakehead, Fort Frances and Kenora. If a resident of Red Lake visits Queen’s Park, his round trip by car is almost 2,700 miles. Gas, from Kenora east to Temiskaming, is priced at 15-30 cents a gallon more than in Southern Ontario.

The handiest way to see the region’s layout in people and their problems is through its scatter of locales, each tributary to a small city or town as, from west to east: Kenora, Thunder Bay, Hearst, Kapuskasing, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, North Bay, Timmins and Kirkland Lake. Since 1900 the region has staged from exciting frontier to widespread development with a fair stability based on forestry, mining, and transport, then into stagnation and, since the ’60s, toward a Newfoundland-like destiny.

Laughren’s term for the region’s dilemma – “long-term structural challenges” – is euphemistic and almost deceitful. Northern Ontario is a national dilemma. Maybe, in economic terms, the national dilemma.

In Ottawa, governments act as if Canada’s transition from a resource-based economy to manufacturing, hi-tech, and service industries has gone well. The slurring phrase, “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” is passe.

But if you think our high living standards largely emerged out of exploiting natural resources on a grand scale for export, you wonder how we will do without such vast trade. You know its components: Lumber, pulp and paper from the forests; gold and base metals from the mines; grains in huge quantities from the west for overseas sales; and to a lesser degree, but still worthwhile, fish and furs.

Sheer size and location make transportation basic for Northern Ontario. Thunder Bay’s recession owes much to the skid in the flow of grain from the west, and from less potash and iron ore moving by rail to the port. Railway jobs and lake shipping jobs, including the grain trade, are a third of what there were in the ’60s. The dominant industry at the Soo, Algoma Steel, is near death. At Kapuskasing, the most successful pulp and paper operation in Ontario’s history is ready to pack up. Hearst, to Kap’s west, a logging, pulp-cutting, saw-milling town is way down, crushed by the softwood export tax and high shipping costs to the American market.

Fewer gold mines are working from Timmins to Red Lake. Hemlo euphoria has faded, with far fewer jobs than predicted. Elliot Lake is ghost-town bent. Each pulp and paper operation, from Kenora to the Lakehead, Red Rock, Terrace Bay and Marathon, the Soo, Smooth Rock Falls and Sturgeon Falls, is plagued by the high costs of wood and anti-pollution imperatives.

Northern Ontario has only one growth industry now – Indianism. Tens of millions flow from Ottawa and Queen’s Park to sustain the aboriginals, but with a rare exception like booming Sioux Lookout, “the Ojibway capital,” Indianism is a minor counter to forest, mining, and transport industries in decline.

Tourism has been a moderate factor and modest hope in parts of Northern Ontario reached readily from the border states, but last year a highway official told me that car traffic moving east and west on the Trans-Canada from Winnipeg to Sudbury-North Bay is half what it was 20 years ago.

NDP ministers like Floyd Laughren, Shelley Martel, and Bud Wildman know well the decaying economy and the regression in the municipalities of Northern Ontario. Such awareness has small witness in the Ontario budget of 1991.

Section: Editorial/Opinion