Rhetoric versus reality

When it comes to strategies and support for tourism and economic development conferences, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative party is, to hear them tell it, all about looking north. 

But when it comes to providing the sort of services that the people living in these places require to maintain their quality of life, the message isn’t always so clear. Or maybe it’s just that, in looking long-term towards a sustainable future of greater economic activity within the province’s north, the government doesn’t see what some of its decisions right now are doing.

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The latest blow to the north came in last week’s announcement by the Northern Regional Health Authority that, because of staffing shortages, obstetrics services would no longer be offered at the hospital in Flin Flon, meaning expectant mothers there and in the surrounding communities in Manitoba and Saskatchewan that the Flin Flon hospital served will have to go to The Pas or elsewhere to have their babies as of 8 a.m. Nov. 18. The health authority termed this a “temporary” closure, though, when you have a start date and no set end date or any assurances that there will, in fact, be one, it seems like it is more of an indefinite suspension, at best, and a precursor to outright elimination of those services on a permanent basis, at worst. Granted, the NRHA is not the provincial government per se, but it is overseen by it and has its budget set by it so, if this decision can not be placed directly at the province’s feet, it certainly set the stage for such a decision to be made.

In Thompson, requests for funding from the Mining Community Reserve Fund have been brushed off recently, while money for the city’s community safety officer program and for all municipalities’ bridge and road repair has been drastically cut. The government has also been sticking to the letter of the law when it comes to northern airports under its management, only clearing snow from runways when it is required by aviation regulations, rather than more regularly as had been the case in the past. 

This isn’t because the provincial government is unaware of the issues. Its Look North strategy shows that it is, though how exactly we are supposed to measure the effectiveness of this spending versus that that is expended on actual services is not precisely clear. If the Northern Manitoba economy grows and diversifies beyond mining and other resource extraction industries, it will have been a success. But if it doesn’t, will it be declared a failure? And what is the timeframe over which these successes or failures will be measured? Life in the north could become costlier and even more of a hassle than it is now, with what would be routine medical procedures in many Canadian communities requiring an eight-hour bus trip or more to Winnipeg, unless perhaps you have the upgrade fee – which is up substantially from the $75 per person it used to be a couple of years ago – to fly via Calm Air. Members of the government may tell you the program is the same as it was, but they definitely did cut $1,000,000 from the funding given to the NRHA for the Northern Patient Transportation Program for the 2017-18 fiscal year, with one cabinet minister saying this was done to curb abuses. It seems unlikely, however, that anyone would be complaining if some of these medical services people have to go to Winnipeg for were available in Thompson or elsewhere within the north, and an appointment could be completed within an afternoon, or even with a few hours of driving there and back.

Economic development and diversification of the economy are definitely a good thing, but governments aren’t always known for being great at creating jobs. They are, however, pretty good at providing the health care services and facilities and other infrastructure that people need in order to consider making a given community their home. At least they are when they deem that it is cost-efficient. In some cases, it seems, what the province says and what it does are at odds with each other, and without the action to back them up, all the words might not amount to anything.

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