Challenges to Sustainability in Northern Ontario

Research and Report by Maureen Woodrow, Ph.D, Institute of the Environment, University of Ottawa

Prepared for the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, May 10, 2002

Download the full report (.pdf)

Northern Ontario, the immense landmass occupying over 80 per cent of the total area of Ontario, has approximately 8 per cent of its population. Its size and geography have been major factors conditioning much of its history and development. Traditionally defined by a line drawn from the Mattawa River across Lake Nipissing to the French River, the southern boundary of Northern Ontario now includes the Muskoka Lakes area. The majority of its population lives along the southern borders and is concentrated in five major centres Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste Marie, North Bay and Timmins. The development of the area, initially known for its fur and trade routes, came about because of its rich resources. Today the resource base remains the economic engine of these communities and the entire area. But as the population decreases and the resource base depletes, the question of the sustainability of the area poses a challenge to the future of the region.

Northern Ontario does not fit easily into the image most Canadians have of Ontario. Disparity between the north and south within Ontario is as great as the disparity between Ontario and the Atlantic provinces. However, to put things in perspective nationally, the population of Northern Ontario is greater than three of the Canadian provinces and of each of its territories. The problems faced by Northern Ontario include small local markets at a distance from larger markets, lack of economic diversification, an aging population and youth migration, government dependency and lack of investment potential. Its history has in many ways conditioned its development. The cycles of expansion and contraction of the resource-based communities to accommodate provincial, national or global markets did not lead to development independent of external sources. Most of the major communities in the north are now over 100 years old. Survival of these communities and the way of life of northern residents is critical to the issue of a sustainable future. What the region can do to maintain a viable sustainable future is the subject of this paper.

The World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) first defined the term sustainability, or sustainable development, in 1987 as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. If the earth’s biosphere is to continue to support life while the human population grows and the earth’s capacity and its resources do not, humans must develop strategies and methods for living off the interest from the environment and not the capital. Moreover, stakeholders with interests in ecological, economic and social reform must work together to create a future where prosperity and opportunity increase for all Canadians.

Most experts argue that moving toward sustainability requires that we manage our economic activities in ways that ensure that our economy and society can continue to exist without destroying the natural environment on which all Ontarians depend. Sustainable communities acknowledge that there are limits to the natural, social and built systems upon which we depend. Key questions that advocate of sustainable northern communities must address include: Are we using northern resources faster than they can be renewed, and Are we enhancing the social and human capital upon which our northern communities depend?

Historically, development in Northern Ontario has depended on resource extraction, which in turn has led to environmental devastation and to the growth of sporadic and unplanned communities, controlled, for the most part, from outside the community and region. The focus on southern Ontario markets did not lend itself to interaction between communities in the north. A northern identity is elusive, since the region is divided administratively between the northeast and northwest, and the mayors and municipalities meet in two different northern municipal organizations the Northern Ontario Municipal Organization or NOMA in the northwest, and the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities or FONOM in the northeast. This continues to foster a divided north. Since most communities in the north share the same history of the boom and bust economy, dependency on global markets, and population loss to the south, the question of the sustainability of the communities and region should be a shared focus. To achieve more self-supporting communities, capable of regenerating from within through economic self-reliance, community control and environmentally sound development, the region must work together to preserve the natural history, culture and the life experiences of its people. The capacity of a region to achieve sustainability is both internal and external. In this paper, we look at the region, its population, and the resource base of its economy and pathways to sustainability.

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