I discovered what is happening to Northern Ontario when I spent two months in Kitchener working on a book and getting to know my new grandson. I was staying with my two daughters and their families. Across the street lives a journalist who used to work in Sudbury. Next door are two guys from Sudbury — actually one is form Chelmsford. One of them mentioned that he is surprised how many Sudburians he meets at work. In the house on the corner of the next block is a retired Sudburian. A woman walking her dog told my wife she was from “Way up North” – meaning Sudbury.
I was smack in the middle of Kitchener’s Little Sudbury, and it gave me a surprising new insight into Northern Ontario.
Kitchener-Waterloo is one of Canada’s economic hot-spots. The neighbouhood I was in is on the edge of the boom. There is a rapid transit line going in just a block away. There as a Muslim school just down the street, a Thai restaurant at the bottom of the hill, and people walking by chatter in Chinese, Malay, Arabic, Ukrainian and other languages I am not quick enough to identify. This is an immigrant community. And some of the immigrants are from Sudbury.
Little Kitchener’s Little Sudbury is just one reminder of how Northern Ontario has changed. Until the mid-70s people flowed into Northern Ontario. Since then they have been trickling out. They are economic migrants leaving a region with no growth for a region that is growing. People leave places where they can’t find jobs and opportunities. Cities like this draw people with jobs and opportunities.
For an economist this is a natural and even positive process. Workers are moving to where they are needed.
For northerners it raises serious questions. Why is a resource-rich region like northern Ontario losing people? What killed the growth in Northern Ontario?
The answer is actually pretty boring. Economies grow by capturing economic rents and plowing the rents back into the local economy. Resource wealth does not stay in Northern Ontario.
Resources in the region are not owned by the people of Northern Ontario, they are owned by the people of Ontario. The North provides most of Ontario’s forest and mineral exports but Northerners make up a little over 4% of the population of the province. That is their share of the North’s resource wealth. It isn’t enough to create new the industries that will keep northerners in the North. Northerners will go where the money goes.
As they should. So next time you are in downtown Kitchener, drive up Cedar street and think about the fact that you are passing though a secret Sudbury neighbourhood.