Policy Institute aims to channel growth
As a region, Northern Ontario traditionally has been at the mercy of outside influences: distant seats of government and multi-national corporations with head offices down south or overseas.
It is these entities that typically determined how the region would grow and develop, often for their own best interests rather than the interests of Northern Ontario or the people who call it home.
But with the launch of the Northern Policy Institute Aug. 31, proponents argue that the North finally has a mechanism to influence its development, a think-tank to call its own.
At the launch last Friday, one of the first items on the order of business, said Laurentian University president Dominic Giroux, is searching for 10 northerners interested in serving on the institute's board.
The institute, an independent, not-for-profit organization, will monitor the implementation of the Growth Plan for Northern Ontario and make provincial policy recommendations for the region.
It will work with northern municipalities, post-secondary institutions, research groups, aboriginal organizations, francophone groups and industry to set priorities and directions for northern development.
Giroux, along with Lakehead University president Brian Stevenson, was appointed by the province as special adviser for the implementation of the Northern Policy Institute.
He said he hopes to have the policy institute's inaugural board in place by October, and also start searching for an executive director in September. Anyone interested in serving on the board is asked to phone Giroux's office at Laurentian.
I think, as we move forward, this policy institute will have a profound effect on decision-making.
Sudbury MPP and Minister of Northern Development and Mines
“It's really people who can put their minds to this, identify the right topics, be thought-provoking, and keep the feet of the executive director and his or her staff close to the fire to be able to produce policy options that may be controversial at times, but will really advance the discussion in terms of policy.”
The province announced the idea of the Northern Policy Institute in 2011 with the launch of the Growth Plan for Northern Ontario.
Since then, Giroux and Stevenson have consulted with 1,400 northerners about what the institute's purpose statement should be, as well as how it should be structured.
The purpose statement which was chosen is as follows: “To develop and promote proactive evidence-based and purpose-drive policy options that deepen understanding about the unique challenges and opportunities in Northern Ontario, and advance the sustainable development and long-term economic prosperity of Northern Ontario.”
Stakeholders also told the university presidents that the policy institute should be an independent body, and should complement but not duplicate the work of northern universities, and bring people from across Northern Ontario together, Giroux said.
“Stakeholders also told us to minimize unnecessary costs,” he said. “That's why Laurentian and Lakehead universities will cover the infrastructure costs of the institute.”
At the same time, the province has provided $5 million to cover some of the policy institute's costs.
Giroux said he's “very excited” about the launch.
“When you look at other jurisdictions and the rest of Canada and around the world, public policy institutes or think tanks can have a lot of positive influence,” he said. “I don't think we should underestimate the long-term impact that the institute will have over time.”
Sudbury MPP and Minister of Northern Development and Mines Rick Bartolucci said once the Northern Policy Institute is up and running, it will have a crucial role to play.
“I think, as we move forward, this policy institute will have a profound effect on decision-making,” he said.
He added the institute could look at issues such as engaging with First Nations communities and improving the socioeconomic situation in the region.
“Anything to do with public policy strategic to Northern Ontario will be opportunities for the Northern Policy Institute,” Bartolucci said.
Laurentian University economics professor David Robinson said he was one of the proponents of the Northern Policy Institute during the Northern Growth Plan consultations.
“I'm delighted that we're going to get a lot of high-powered expertise and do this right,” he said, adding that he thinks making the policy institute an independent body was the right way to go.
He said he'd have been happier if the province had provided $50 million to fund the institute instead of $5 million, though.
As for whether the government will listen to what the think tank has to say, Robinson said there's a good chance it will.
“I think the government does listen, but I think that there are pressures on the government of all sorts that make it hard to do,” Robinson said.
“Another voice will help make it seem real. I think when somebody in Kapuskasing says something, they're just a member of the ordinary public, and they don't know much.
“So when it comes from a policy institute they've set up, I think it will get more attention. It's just a step towards getting taken seriously.”