Ontario budget looks north for economic salvation

While Torontonians may feel slighted by this year’s Ontario budget cuts to transit, recession-racked northern Ontario is basking in the glow of new attention, thanks to ‘the ring of fire’.

Over the past six years the McGuinty government has taken heat from all quarters, with accusations that the Liberals have ignored the health, social and employment needs of the province beyond the Golden Horseshoe.

In his budget handed down Thursday, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has signaled a shift that the province is looking to its vast hinterland for economic salvation.

The discovery of “the ring of fire,” chromite deposits in north central Ontario, has sparked the renewed interest.

New measures to relieve economic burdens for northern residents and encourage economic development rank number two in the provincial budget, second only to investments post-secondary education.

Duncan said he only became aware of the new resource bonanza “six or seven months ago,” but the government has been enthusiastically incorporating it into plans ever since.

The only known chromite deposit in North America, and potentially the largest in the world, it places Ontario in a position to dominate the stainless steel industry, said Duncan.

Measures to grow development north include $150-million in breaks for developers of industrial electricity, $45 million for Aboriginal education and breaks for homeowners and entrepreneurs.

Large-scale industrial facilities are also slated to benefit from a separate Northern Industrial Electricity Rate Program, which would reduce the rates of industrial electricity prices by 25 per cent over the net three years. Facilities must commit to a certain operational efficiencies and a sustainability plan to be eligible for the reduced rate.

The plan to “open” northern Ontario also envisages new investments in infrastructure. The 2010 provincial budget allocates nearly $1.2 billion to expand highways, sewage, hospital and police services to accommodate the expected inflow of industry and workers.

The highway between Thunder Bay and Nipigon will grow to four lanes for 100-kilometres while $15 million will go to the Huron Central Railway for the development of a train line between Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury.

Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak was unimpressed by the budget, noting “McGuinty has failed to lead.” He dismissed the plan as a “pie-in-the-sky scheme.”

He was joined by his shadow finance minister Norm Miller, who observed “(McGuinty) pretty much has to bring about this policy to balance his other policies following the closure of numerous paper mills and plants over the past six years.”

The Tories charge that some 60 paper mills, along with 45,000 jobs, have been lost in the north during the recession.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, meanwhile, noted that while she was glad that “Dalton McGuinty has finally found northern Ontario on the map,” she is skeptical that the Liberal government is prepared to follow through with the ambitious plan.

“We’ve seen the Liberals (promise) relief before,” she said, “only to see that the money never flows.”