Now Does The Premier Have Time For Northern Manitoba?

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

Last fall, the Manitoba Premier threw cold water on any discussions over Western separation. During a CTV interview, the Premier informed a reporter that he had no time for that movement. Making a reference to marriage, he said good relationships are not built on threats to leave. However, while the Premier may have shut the door on Wexit, he may be well served by a reminder of the homegrown regional alienation in his own province. Northern alienation is real in Manitoba and the government must take it seriously. 

Last year, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy initiated a landmark discussion on the issue of redrawing provincial boundaries to provide tidewater access. Northern Manitoba might take some cues from that discussion to engage Saskatchewan on joining that province, or even with Ontario. 

Northern Manitoba knows about the economic hardship that Alberta has been experiencing. However, the region may have to take a page from Alberta on the Wexit movement to finally get the attention it deserves. Either redrawing its 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 been hit with some major blows. First with the port of Churchill closing to grain shipments not long ago, forcing the subarctic seaport to reconsider its future. Then in The Pas, the closure of its heavy paper plant, although this restructuring led to success. Now, Hudbay’s 777 mine (Flin Flon) and processing facilities are set to close in 2022. Finally, the city of Thompson lives in uncertainty over the fate of Vale’s mining and milling operations. 

Many in Northern Manitoba are concerned their government in Winnipeg is not as supportive of mining as other governments are in other cities such as Sudbury, Ontario and elsewhere. Moreover, observers were alarmed when Manitoba recently fell behind in terms of policy and tax attractiveness for mining investment. Only three years the province was within the top five jurisdictions around the world. Northern residents justifiably wonder if the Province has let them hang to dry. 

Northern communities and First Nations in the far north await the government’s plans for developing critical transportation infrastructure in the northern 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 leadership. 

Manitoba lacks a “Plan Nord” as in Quebec where years ago that province and Indigenous groups unveiled an economic development strategy involving historic investments in the natural resource sector in the far north. The plan also involved vast boreal forest, just as in Northern Manitoba. The plan managed to reconcile economic development with boreal conservation, something that has eluded the Manitoba government. 

It seems that the region might have to do something dramatic to get the Premier and his Cabinet’s attention. 

An ailing economy is not the only significant challenge hanging over the region. As in the case of rural Saskatchewan, Northern Manitoba is dealing with its own challenges with rural crime.  

In November 2019, Thompson graced the cover of Maclean’s for having the distinction of being Canada’s most violent city for three straight years. This ranking was based on data from Statistics Canada’s crime severity index, which examines police data from cities across Canada. 

The court in the city of Thompson deals with the busiest court docket outside of Winnipeg. According to the same source, the Thompson court office 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 and criminal law prosecutors in the region. Crown attorneys regularly must be flown into Thompson and The Pas to handle the overworked courts. Last year, a Manitoba judge severely criticized the effects these shortages were having on the bail system for the accused. Critics within the legal system began to argue that accused were being denied their Charter rights to timely bail. 

For many northern communities, the lack of access to timely sentencing and court resources contributes to a sense of lawlessness and desperation in the region. 

For the sake of all these issues, Manitoba might have to raise the stakes by engaging the redrawn boundaries debate. Ideally, this would lead to significant concessions from the province. Or it could help refocus the Premier’s attention. For example, many have set their sights on opening Churchill to a pipeline from Alberta. While Manitoba’s Premier has said he is “open” to the idea, the Saskatchewan government has been more proactive in establishing a cabinet committee to explore their options. If Northern Manitoba announced it was open to redrawing its borders to facilitate this pipeline, this might force the government’s hand.

Someone clearly needs to remind Manitoba that northern alienation is alive and well.

Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.