EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this article published March 26, 2021 stated Northern Policy Institute is based in Thunder Bay. NPI actually has permanent offices in both Thunder Bay and Sudbury as well as satellite offices in other Northern Ontario communities. This corrected version deletes the geographic reference.
The economic potential of Northeastern Ontario is largely untapped according to a new think-tank organization focused on promoting the region's most appealing qualities to the world.
On Thursday afternoon at Cedar Meadows, the official launch of the Abitibi Institute was held for a limited crowd of 50.
The policy-focused organization has four founding members: Tony Makuch, president and CEO of Kirkland Lake Gold, Timmins Mayor George Pirie, Robert Manseau, CEO of Commerce Management, and Gaetan Malette, a community consultant with Dumas Contracting.
Malette, the founding vice-president, was the first to speak, and he lamented at how far the region's forest industry has sunk over the past few decades.
“The lack of effective policy essentially wiped out the pulp industry in Smooth Rock Falls, and the paper mill in Iroquois Falls,” he said.
“We have everything we need here. We have the economic engine to make things happen. What we need is to step up and advocate for ourselves.”
Malette added that the bulk of the foundational sponsorship was provided by Kirkland Lake Gold.
Makuch will serve as founding chairman. He told the audience it is time to recognize just how great the North is.
“It's time that we get together and we see what we can do in terms of creating the value that can happen here.”
He made it clear that the focus of the Abitibi Institute is not solely on the mining and forestry.
“It's about how do we start to bring things into this region that really takes advantage of the economy, and builds prosperity for the people here,” said Makuch.
Other economic sectors mentioned throughout the hour-long presentation included agriculture, manufacturing and education.
Pirie said his involvement is all about having a passion for the region, and a strong belief in the future of the area, something that he feels isn't talked about enough.
“Nine-tenths of this province, area-wise, is north of Sudbury, North Bay and Sault Ste. Marie,” he said.
“This area is totally different than any other area of the province.”
He spoke about the unique geology of the area, and the untapped potential of rare earth minerals, as well as pointing out the thousands of acres of arable land on which food can be grown.
“We've got what the world needs, and we don't talk about it.”
Pirie believes a major population boom is coming to the region in the near future.
“I'll tell you, this will be the last time that we talk about declining population.”
It was pointed out several times that the Abitibi Institute will not have official boundaries. Communities along the James Bay Coast, as well as in Northwestern Quebec, such as Rouyn-Noranda and Val d'Or, will also be included.
Of course a similar sounding group, known as the Northern Policy Institute, already exists, but Pirie said there are some differences between that and the Abitibi Institute.
“This is unique. It's not funded by the government. It's funded privately. We don't owe anything to anybody. It's designed on the very basic premise that the future is in our hands and we drive it ourselves,” said Pirie.
It was also made clear that the organization is apolitical.
“We will appeal to every community in the region, and every person in the region.”
Manseau is serving as the founding president, and he told the crowd the Abitibi Institute is not an economic development entity.
“Throughout the region, including here in Timmins, we have economic development offices that populate the whole region, and they are staffed with some very capable people. What we wan't to be able to do is enhance their tools, to be able to move things forward,” he said.
“This is a volunteer organization, nobody is making any dough from this. We want to be able to rally the energy of everybody towards the specific goal of the betterment of the region. I think we are committed to undertaking long hours of moving this thing forward.”
Manseau stated the region is on the precipice of a huge post-pandemic economic boom.
“I think it's going to be transformative. But if we don't take hold of that, serve it forward, and be able to grab on, we're just going to be the same fallen victims of boom-and-bust that we were before. We can't afford to lose this opportunity.”
He mentioned that the group is committed for at least the next 36 months.
“It's going to be a very, very busy year. We are only getting started. We have a founding group, and that founding group is going to give way to an elected body, and that body will draw from the membership and individuals who will present themselves, wanting to participate,” said Manseau.
After the meeting, Makuch told The Daily Press the group will begin to add members soon.
“We want to get the word out. Get people embracing it. Get some advice. Get some other people to join and be a part of it,” he said.
“The membership is open to anybody who wants to be involved, and has energy to bring it forward. I think its something that is going to evolve over time.”
Makuch said fundamentally, they want to bring the region back to the forefront, but they will need a lot of participation, engagement, and ideas.
“It's going to be successful if we have 75,000 people on board, not just four of us.”
A major focus will be the much-discussed youth retention issue.
“Over time, we'd like to get everybody in the region to start thinking about what can be done, and how we can improve things for the betterment of everybody. With that, we can attract new people and new services. If we can attract more people here, it will bring more secondary and tertiary industries.”
Makuch said he truly believes the Northeast has just as much potential as the long-hyped Ring of Fire region in Northwestern Ontario.
“It's definitely a special area. It could be the economic engine of Ontario, and of Canada. Well this region, Northeastern Ontario and Northwestern Quebec, is equal or better than, and is already partly developed. So if we need an economic engine to move the province and country forward, we need to bring it to the forefront that this is the place.”
Andrew Autio is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for The Daily Press. LJI is a federally funded program.
Andrew Autio, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Press