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By Sid Ryan

Smooth Rock Falls, population 1,800, is located between Cochrane and Kapuskasing. The community was recently devastated by the announced closure of the Tembec paper mill, the town’s principal employer.

Dozens of communities across northern Ontario are reeling from similar plant closures or downsizing. According to Statistics Canada, Ontario has lost more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs in the past two years.

Since the 1990s, governments have essentially left industrial development to the market and free trade agreements. Tax-cutting gurus told us jobs would flow to Canada, eventually cutting the productivity gap between our manufacturing sector and that in the U.S. We were led to believe that corporations would invest their generous tax cuts in new technologies and modern equipment.

But, according to Canadian Labour Congress economist Andrew Jackson, this never happened. Unfortunately, he has said, despite corporate tax cuts, total investment in industrial machinery and equipment was essentially flat in 2003 through 2005.

Compounding the problem is Premier Dalton McGuinty’s disastrous electricity policy. The manufacturing sector in Ontario was traditionally based on a plentiful supply of reliable and cheap electricity. The Liberal government’s market-driven electricity prices are killing competitiveness in the manufacturing and resource sectors.

The final nail in the coffin is the soaring Canadian dollar, driven primarily by the booming energy sector out west, which itself has sucked up $1.4 billion in taxpayer subsidies.

The communities of Sault Ste. Marie, Fort Frances, Greenstone, Dryden, Espanola, Timmins and Smooth Rock Falls are all asking where the McGuinty government is. Each of these municipal councils has signed onto a resolution sponsored by the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and Communications, Energy and Paper Workers (CEP) demanding that an all-party legislative committee tour northern Ontario and listen to the people hit hard by the closures and layoffs.

In Smooth Rock Falls, families are losing their homes, although some are selling them — for $25,000. Seniors on fixed incomes, with their lifetime assets sunk into their homes, have nowhere to go.

Meanwhile, the premier will be dropping into next week’s Ontario Economic Summit in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where participants have ponied up $3,900 apiece to listen to industry and government types talk about “developing human capital “ and “identifying barriers to Ontario’s prosperity.” 

One of the speakers at this illustrious gathering of the well-heeled is Alan Dukes, one-time leader of the Irish opposition party Fine Gael. He will be talking about the famed Celtic Tiger, a name given to the almost miraculous economic turn around of the Irish economy back in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

I hope the premier listens closely to Mr. Dukes, because his central message will be that the Irish economy was turned around when that government began to seriously listen to key stakeholders, such as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. The unions proposed a program of moderate wage increases, lower taxes on low-income earners, measures to stimulate job creation and strategies to improve social protections.

The important point for the premier to take away from Mr. Duke’s presentation will be that the Irish government listened to and adopted some of the ideas presented by labour.  By contrast, the premier knows that after three years in office, he has yet to sit down and talk with Wayne Samuelson, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour.  He has, of course, met with selected union leaders — a divide and conquer strategy that, quite frankly, will come back to haunt the Liberals in the next election.

He must also make the effort to go into northern Ontario and listen to the residents of Smooth Rock Falls and dozens of other hurting communities.

He might be surprised by the sage advice that working families will freely give him about “developing human capital” and “identifying barriers to prosperity.”

It’s advice that Wayne Samuelson will hear when he hosts a summit on the same day as the premier attends the swanky event in Niagara-on-the-Lake. However, there will be an important difference: Samuelson will be listening to the workers who lost their jobs; meanwhile the premier fiddles as Rome burns.