Features | Code orange

In light of the NDP’s recent sweep of northern Ontario in the federal elections, Joël Pedneault takes a look at the socio-economic concerns that affect the region’s voters

Picture this: like most northern Ontarians, you live in a small town. You used to work in a nickel mine, but it’s closed now and there aren’t many other job opportunities on the horizon. You’re lucky to be eligible for employment insurance – many of your former coworkers aren’t. They’re thinking of moving to Sudbury to work in the service sector, or even to Fort McMurray to work in the oil sands.

“People don’t see a future for their communities, and the population is shrinking as a result,” says Mary Powell, chair of Political Science at Laurentian University in Subdury. “There are hardly any young people who stay because there aren’t any jobs. They move to cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, or Montreal.”

More and more northern residents are finding themselves in situations like this, a factor contributing to the NDP’s sweeping victory in the region extending north from North Bay this past federal election. The NDP now holds seven out of the ten ridings in northern Ontario, while in the 2006 elections it only managed to secure two seats in this former Liberal stronghold. Such a significant jump in support for the NDP merits a deeper look at the concerns of people living in the region.

This election, the NDP’s campaign was aimed at working families – not the most relevant demographic to younger voters. Yet populist messaging seems to have swung the vote in favour of the NDP in northern Ontario, by catching the attention of the region’s large – and cash-strapped – workforce.

Most residents of northern Ontario work in the forestry, mining, and agriculture industries. Others rely on seasonal activities, such as tourism and fishing, for jobs during part of the year. But recently, industries are leaving the region, and as a result a growing number of people in the area have lost their jobs. Factories are shutting down, because of the high price of electricity, an irony not lost on many residents who have lost jobs in the sector – dams in the region produce electricity for the rest of the province.

Layoffs don’t just mean a loss of income; former employees often lose their pensions and benefits as well. “Many people can’t afford pharmaceuticals and stop taking their prescriptions. Some people can’t even go to the dentist anymore,” says Powell. “The cost of living is much higher in northern Ontario. Take gas as an example: if gas is one-dollar [per litre] in Toronto, it’ll be $1.25 in Cochrane. Yet minimum wage is the same for all Ontarians.” Many northern Ontarians are blue-collar workers with lower incomes who are dependent on vehicles to get to work or to do groceries. Higher prices and unemployment mean that less and less northern Ontarians take winter vacations. “People end up cutting back on Christmas spending,” Powell says.

Attending to the region’s economy is a primary concern for Tony Martin, MP for Sault Ste.-Marie. “Northern Ontario has a heavy resource base, and everyone knows that crises here tend to be cyclical. Problems in the forestry sector today could mean trouble for mining tomorrow,” he explains.

As they have done in the past, the New Democrats vowed to give wider access to employment insurance benefits, to increase minimum wage to ten-dollars an hour, and to provide pension security when employers go out of business. The NDP also promised to step in whenever there is a major layoff, in order to keep jobs in the region.

The number of working-class people receiving the short end of the stick is growing fast in the North, and many are aware of the NDP’s emphasis on labour rights. Enough northern Ontarians stood to benefit from labour-minded social reforms this federal election that the NDP gained most seats in the region.

Job insecurity isn’t the only problem troubling northern Ontarians. “Across [the region], access to timely and effective healthcare is an issue because people live in isolated communities. Many people in northern Ontario live far from centres like Subdury, Sault Ste-Marie, or Thunder Bay, and most live far from cities in southern Ontario like Toronto, London, and Ottawa, where the biggest hospitals are,” says Martin.

The region’s population is smaller than Ottawa’s metropolitan area, yet it covers 90 per cent of the province. This election, the NDP vowed to make medical services more accessible in northern Ontario by putting more doctors and nurses in rural communities.

The problem is not so much that there are not enough doctors and nurses to staff rural clinics in the region – the doctor shortage is actually worse in southern Ontario, and the government provides large incentives to practice in the North. Rather, there simply aren’t enough hospitals and clinics to serve northern Ontario’s scattered population. Communities across the North often lack medical services, which compromises quality of life.

This past election, the NDP gained seats in northern ridings in British Columbia and Manitoba, as well as in the Northwest Territories. These regions rely heavily on resource extraction, and just like northern Ontario, have a high proportion of blue-collar workers who have seen their livelihood bases disappear, and tend to vote for a party that defends their interests.

In addition to other northern regions, Powell compares northern Ontario to Newfoundland before the discovery of its offshore oil, or to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia today. “The population would love to stay, but there aren’t any jobs,” she says.

The government has attempted to support industries in northern Ontario through the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario (FedNor). But NDP Members of Parliament claim that this money has been misdirected. For example, Tony Clement, federal minister for FedNor and one of only two Conservative MPs elected in northern Ontario, used money initially intended to help women, Aboriginals, and franco-Ontarians in the North to sponsor a triathlon tournament. The tournament took place in his riding, Parry Sound-Muskoka, the southernmost riding in northern Ontario. The area attracts cottagers and tourists, and is hardly working-class, industrial, or cash-strapped – unlike the more remote communities that could stand to benefit from FedNor funds. In addition, rural communities in southern and central Ontario can now access FedNor funds. This imbalance was a major part of the NDP’s platform in the recent election.

The fact that northern Ontario is underrepresented at both the federal and provincial levels causes its concerns and values to be pushed to the periphery of one the most populous provinces in Canada. “Northern Ontarians feel completely unheard by Toronto. In the House of Commons, the region has more ridings than Newfoundland, but since it isn’t a province in itself, it doesn’t get as much voice,” Powell says.

In the past, there have been mobilizations pushing for northern Ontario’s independence as a province, or demanding that the region join Manitoba. In the 1970s, the northern Ontario Heritage Party formed at the provincial level, initially pushing for the creation of a separate province and later demanding that the region’s manufacturing sector be allowed to prosper in order to create more jobs. In so doing, the aim was to develop the region’s economy so that it would not be as dependent on exporting raw goods to the rest of Canada. This party never managed to secure a seat in Queen’s Park, but soon after its formation, a Ministry of Northern Development and Mines was created at the provincial level to address some of the issues the party had raised.

In recent coverage of the election, some journalists have that the NDP did so well in northern Ontario partly because of the region’s large aboriginal population. Yet voter turnout tends to be very low on native reserves. Doug West, a professor at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay who researches aboriginal politics, explains that “First Nations don’t get a lot of respect for indigenous forms of governance, which has to do with Canada’s history of colonialism.” Reserves across Canada continue to suffer from dismal living conditions. “These communities often don’t even have decent drinking water, and suffer from bad housing. It’s a national disgrace,” Powell adds.

Many First Nations people have no desire to participate in a political system that has contributed to their marginalization, and in which their demands for self-determination continue to be silenced. Nevertheless, First Nations voter turnout tends to be higher in urban centres in the North. “Urban native people feel their voices can be heard more loudly in cities,” says West.

When asked whether First Nations voters might prefer the NDP to other parties, West responds, “In this election, Aboriginal People actually tended to vote Liberal. But overall their vote didn’t impact on the results that much, since First Nations people don’t make up that much of the population eligible to vote in northern Ontario.” People under 18 account for a relatively large proportion of the total aboriginal population in Canada.

On the other hand, appealing to the First Nations vote also seems to have worked to the Conservative’s advantage. Kenora, the riding with the largest aboriginal population out of all ten in northern Ontario was a gain for the Conservatives. According to Powell, MP-elect Greg Rickford defeated the Liberal incumbent, Roger Valley, thanks to his strong involvement with native communities in his riding. Rickford worked as a registered nurse in the 1990s with First Nations communities before studying law. He then worked as a private practice lawyer for First Nations people exclusively. “He knows every community in the Kenora riding and has connections with aboriginal communities as well. I’m actually surprised he’s with the Conservative Party; his background is closer to that of an NDP candidate. I think people voted for him rather than for his party,” says Powell.

In past years, every large town in northern Ontario saw unemployment rise substantially. But not every community is losing jobs. Red Lake, home to a thriving gold mine, has not suffered the fate of many small towns in the North. The mine provides incentive against leaving despite the town’s extreme isolation; Red Lake is several hundred kilometres from Thunder Bay, the nearest city.

In this election, Nipissing-Timiskaming riding was the only one to go to the Liberal Party in northern Ontario, with incumbent Anthony Rota taking the seat by a wide margin. In Powell’s opinion, this riding is hardly worth including in her definition of northern Ontario. The rest of the region is much more dependent on resource extraction than the southerly parts of northern Ontario is. This, combined with Rota’s popularity among his constituents, explains why the NDP did not pick up this riding.

In the seven ridings it picked up, the NDP had a strong slate of candidates with experience working on issues that concern northern Ontarians. The current MP for Nickel Belt, for instance, worked as a machinist for over three decades before becoming a union organizer. He embodies the NDP’s populist appeal to working-class voters, a campaign strategy that proved very successful overall in northern Ontario.

Hearing the concerns of smaller communities was one of the strategies the NDP used to garner more popular support this past election. Often, relatively isolated communities are the ones that most depend on extractive industries in the region, and are the hardest hit by the economic downturn in the region. According to Martin, “The viability of many small communities is threatened, especially because of problems in the forestry sector. This election, we tried to promote the well-being of these communities.”