Resourceful Ontario will reinvent itself and prosper

The day this commentary is published, February 15, Don Drummond will present his report to the Ontario government offering his recommendations on what measures this province should take to overcome a $16 billion deficit without raising citizens’ tax burden.

Depending on one’s point of view, this may or may not be seen as an appropriate post-Valentine’s gift to Ontarians. It must certainly be seen as a gift in that Mr. Drummond’s suggestions will almost certainly gore everyone’s ox to some extent and this alone is guaranteed to lead to weeks and months of lively debate.

Mr. Drummond, previously the chief economist for TD-Canada Trust, will be presenting his proposal to Premier Dalton McGuinty and Ontario’s Liberal government at a time when several other stars are aligning that will all have a bearing on this province’s near future.

When Statistics Canada (Stats Can) last week released the population numbers and associated trends gathered in the 2011 census program we learned that, for the first time in many years Ontario’s population, while still increasing, is doing so at a decreased rate. This decrease is obvious both in comparisons with previous recent Ontario census counts and also with current trends in Western Canada where populations, on a percentage basis, are growing more rapidly than in Ontario.

Other changes are afoot that likely have a direct bearing on Ontario’s slowed population growth and with increases in the West: the automotive sector, long the engine of Ontario’s vigorous manufacturing sector is stalling. In the London – St. Thomas area over the past three years, more than 2,000 jobs directly related to this sector have disappeared with the closure of the St. Thomas Ford plant, the Caterpillar-owned manufacturer in London and the Sterling Trucks plant in St. Thomas.

Windsor, Oshawa and Oakville, all communities whose main industrial activity has for a century been centered around automotive manufacturing, still have those jobs, only not nearly so many of them.

Mr. Drummond’s recommendations to pay down Ontario’s substantial deficit, then, must be borne by a somewhat small—and older—population that no longer has access to as many high pay industrial jobs that for so many years characterized this province as the economic centre of Canada.

This, then, is the environment that will hear Mr. Drummond’s proposals to deal with, among other issues, the costs of health care and education that by themselves consume nearly 60 percent of Ontario’s annual budget.

Everything changes. Ontario’s economy is certainly very different from 20 or even 10 years ago.

It’s time for a debate on where we’re going from here for doubtless the ramifications of Mr. Drummond’s recommendations—assuming they are profound and visionary—will lead our political debate beyond the deficit, to ideas that can stimulate the province’s economy.

For Ontario is nothing if not resourceful. It was this province, when Bill Davis was education minister (and later premiere), that looked ahead, recognized that every young person was going to need specialized skills to meet the needs of a world that most people in the mid-1960s didn’t envision.

So, in 1967, the Ontario Community College system opened as a unit with 21 campuses.

Ontario’s young people were suddenly expected to continue their education after high school.

That was visionary. It was also Canada’s first system of community colleges that continues to grow and still dwarfs other provinces efforts to accomplish the same thing.

Under pressure, Ontario will reinvent itself and prosper.

The Drummond report is a step in this process.