Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister recently threw cold water on the notion of Western Canada separation, saying good relationships aren’t built on threats to leave.
But Pallister has similar issues on his own doorstep: Northern Manitoba alienation is real and the government must take it seriously.
Last year, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy initiated a landmark discussion on redrawing provincial boundaries to provide tidewater access. Northern Manitoba might take some cues from that discussion to engage regions of Saskatchewan and Ontario.
Northern Manitobans understand the economic hardship Albertans have been experiencing. And the region may have to take a page from Alberta’s Wexit movement to finally get the attention it deserves.
Pushing for redrawn borders or talking about going it alone may force the Manitoba government to address the unique economic and infrastructure needs of this region.
The regional economy has certainly suffered some major blows:
• The port of Churchill closed to grain shipments, forcing operators of the subarctic seaport to reconsider its future.
• In The Pas, the closure of a heavy paper plant eventually led to a successful restructuring.
• Hudbay's Flin Flon mine and processing facilities are set to close in 2022.
• There is uncertainty over the fate of Vale’s mining and milling operations in Thompson.
Many in Northern Manitoba believe the government in Winnipeg isn’t as supportive of mining as provincial governments elsewhere.
For example, Manitoba has fallen behind other jurisdictions in terms of policy and tax attractiveness for mining investment. Only three years ago, the province was among the top five jurisdictions worldwide in terms of investment attractiveness.
Northern communities and First Nations await the government plans for developing critical transportation infrastructure to Manitoba’s far reaches. Many fly-in communities still lack connection to the wider economy and world.
Despite some northern highway investments, Indigenous communities and rural communities look to Winnipeg for more leadership.
Manitoba lacks a Plan Nord. Five years ago, the Quebec government and Indigenous groups unveiled this economic development strategy involving historic investments in the natural resource sector in the far north.
The Quebec plan managed to reconcile economic development with boreal conservation, something that has eluded the Manitoba government.
An ailing economy isn’t the only significant challenge hanging over the region. As in rural Saskatchewan, Northern Manitoba is dealing with rural crime problems.
And in November 2019, Maclean’s magazine declared Thompson has been Canada’s most violent city for three straight years. This was based on information from Statistics Canada’s crime severity index, which examines police data from cities across Canada.
Thompson has the busiest court docket outside of Winnipeg. And the Thompson court office reportedly deals with a per capita caseload about 14 times the size of Winnipeg’s provincial court.
This problem is exacerbated by a significant shortage of Crown attorneys in the region. Crown attorneys regularly must be flown into Thompson and The Pas. Critics argue that accused are being denied their right to timely bail hearings, trials and sentencing.
For many northern communities, the lack of access to timely sentencing and court resources contributes to a sense of regional lawlessness and desperation.
To address all of these issues, the province might have to raise the stakes by engaging in a discussion about redrawn boundaries. This could certainly lead to significant concessions from the province or at least help refocus the premier’s attention.
For example, many people have set their sights on opening Churchill to an oil pipeline from Alberta. And while Pallister says he’s open to the idea, the Saskatchewan government has been more proactive in establishing a cabinet committee to explore their options.
If the people of Northern Manitoba made it clear they were open to redrawing borders to facilitate a pipeline, this might force the Manitoba government’s hand.
Someone clearly needs to remind the government of Manitoba that northern alienation is alive and well.
Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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