And with the Ring of Fire representing the biggest single economic development opportunity in the province, the government is listening, says Greater Sudbury Mayor Marianne Matichuk.
Matichuk, Al MacDonald of North Bay, Debbie Amoroso of Sault Ste. Marie, Tom Laughren of Timmins and Joe Virdiramo, acting mayor of Thunder Bay, unveiled their Northern Priorities document Tuesday at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario meeting in Ottawa.
The annual event offers Ontario's 444 municipalities access to provincial cabinet ministers, opposition leaders – and even representatives from the federal government. Local politicians normally schedule one-on-one meetings with ministers and make a pitch for their city's priorities.
But in an unprecedented move, the leaders of the North's five biggest cities made a collective pitch, calling on the province to focus on six areas they say are key to economic development. And while the priorities aren't new – such as calls for more infrastructure funding and sharing of revenue from natural resources – Matichuk said the Ring of Fire added considerable weight to their arguments.
Seven cabinet minister were on hand when they delivered their pitch, each mayor taking turns outlining specific priorities they say are key to the region's future.
In an interview from Ottawa, Matichuk said it builds on the Northern Ontario Growth Plan, the provincial planning document released in 2011 that sets out general policies for the next 25 years.
But unlike the 2011 plan, the mayors' priorities are specific and were written by the people who live and work here and know Northern Ontario best.
“It's unprecedented,” Matichuk said, of the mayors combining their lobbying efforts. “It's always been kind of everyone out for their own city, but we realized ... we all have common problems and we all have the same goals.”
The Ring of Fire is a massive chromite discovery in northwestern Ontario that will require huge infrastructure investments to develop, as well as training and energy initiatives – big ticket items Northerners have wanted for years, she said. So the province had a renewed interest in what the mayors had to say.
“They realize now Northern Ontario is unique and there's a growth opportunity here,” Matichuk said. “The Ring of Fire is huge for all of the North ... And we're looking at the whole possibility.
“What I heard from Premier (Kathleen) Wynne was that they are going to start looking at Northern Ontario through a very different lens. And we've never heard that before.”
A summit is being scheduled before the end of the year that will bring the cities and the province together to plan the next steps. Matichuk said they will be looking for ways to bring in leaders from other Northern municipalities to ensure everyone is included in the process.
In a news release, Laughren said the united front made an impression on Wynne.
“We had an excellent meeting with our provincial representatives,” he said. “They heard our message that we are speaking as one voice for all Northerners. I look forward to the next steps in achieving our goals.”
“I am pleased with today's meeting,” McDonald said in the release. “The North has unlimited potential, and by speaking with one voice, Northern Ontario will be in a better position to compete on the global stage.”
“The economic development opportunities in Northern Ontario today will have a significant benefit to the entire province for decades to come,” Virdiramo is quoted as saying in the release.
The document came out of meetings of Northern Ontario Large Urban Mayors (NOLUM), a group made up of the leaders of the five biggest cities in the North.