Mantario revisited

Dissatisfied residents of Northwestern Ontario, seeking an end to their politically challenged status quo, will have to mobilize their forces and incur substantial political transaction costs if they want to change their position within Ontario, write Livio Di Matteo, J.C. Herbert Emery and Ryan English in a recent Canadian Public Policy magazine article.

The authors discussed three possible scenarios for the residents: provincial status, a regional government and a union with Manitoba. The later scenario is the most gratifying for Manitobans and probably the best outcome for residents of Northwestern Ontario.

“We find that there would be political benefits for the residents of the Thunder Bay, Rainy River and Kenora Census Districts from a union with Manitoba as they would have a larger voice in the Manitoba legislature than they have at Queen’s Park in Toronto,” say the three authors. “As for the economic benefits, voters in Northwestern Ontario would have to trade off having higher spending and taxes as part of Manitoba, against Ontario’s lower spending levels that come with lower personal income taxes.”

Whatever the option, residents of Northwest Ontario believe the time has come to reverse a 122-year-old decision to include their region within the province of Ontario. 

In the last few years, the dominate opinion coming out of Northwestern Ontario is to become part of Manitoba, which would reverse a decision made by the Privy Council in London, England, which had once been the final arbitrator of disputes in Canada before this power was transferred to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1931. 

The argument used by residents of the expansive region — contains 60 per cent of Ontario’s area, but less than two per cent of the population — is that they feel left out from the decision-making process in faraway Toronto. 

The recent Canadian Public Policy article is just one of many that have contained speculation on the future of the region within Ontario.

Dave Canfield, the mayor of Kenora, in other articles expressed his frustration with the Ontario legislature’s inaction on the region’s behalf. He set up a group to study whether or not the northwest should stay in Ontario or join Manitoba. 

The advantages to Northwestern Ontario to join with Manitoba are many. For example, Thunder Bay, a city ranked only 12th in size within Ontario, would become Manitoba’s second largest city, surpassing Brandon. Thunder Bay has 100,000 people compared to Brandon’s 40,000. Meanwhile, Kenora with a population of 16,000, would surpass in size Thompson, Portage la Prairie, Steinbach and Selkirk, becoming the province’s third largest city. Even Manitoba’s most populous rural municipalities — Springfield with 12,602 people, Hanover with 10,789 people, St. Andrews with 10,695 and St. Clements with 9,115 — are far smaller in population than Kenora. 

The region would have some measure of political clout because it would have 11 of a projected 68 seats in the Manitoba legislature (there are now 57 seats) versus their existing three seats in the 103-seat Ontario legislature. 

Although Manitoba Premier Gary Doer hasn’t openly speculated about the proposal, he should take a look at what has happened to Manitoba in the past and encourage the secessionists. 

In 1870, Manitoba got the short end of the stick when Ottawa gave it only enough land to become referred to as the “Postage Stamp Province.”  Manitoba had laid claim to all the territory in a line running from Thunder Bay to its own eastern border, but Ontario roared its disapproval. For years, the area was disputed by the two provinces. 

Rat Portage, later given the more pleasantly sounding name of Kenora, was once filled with police and magistrates from both provinces which claimed jurisdiction in the region. For a time, it was more dangerous to be a lawman in Rat Portage than a criminal, and there were plenty of lawbreakers as the community was filled with bootleggers and prostitutes prepared to serve the 2,000 Canadian Pacific Railway workers. To fill the diminishing ranks in the dangerous profession, persuasion came in the form of free whiskey and special pay. 

The conflict escalated to the point that  each side arrested each other’s police officers and placed them in their respective jails. There were so many Ontario policemen arrested that they had to be shipped to a jail in Winnipeg. In retaliation, the Manitoba jail in Rat Portage was set afire. Premier John Norquay of Manitoba became so enraged with the act of arson that he personally led a detachment of Manitoba Provincial Police from Winnipeg to arrest the culprits. 

The situation reached its high point when both provinces called elections for the same day in Rat Portage. Norquay actually ended up with more votes in the community than there were registered voters. 

The dispute ended in 1884 when Rat Portage was officially declared part of Ontario by the Privy Council. Ontario’s case was presented by a battery of lawyers, while Manitoba, with its limited resources, had to rely upon only a couple of representatives. 

We lost out again in 1905 when Ottawa decided to carve out two additional provinces — Saskatchewan and Alberta — from the Northwest Territories rather than allow Manitoba to expand its borders. 

Since Manitoba is significantly closer to, has more ties with and won’t dominate the region through strength of numbers, the Kenora mayor is correct in asserting his community will get more attention from the Manitoba government than from the Ontario government in Queen’s Park. 

While it was a mistake in 1884 to rule against Manitoba, neither Ottawa or Toronto are likely to allow Kenora to secede and join our province. Ontario votes are concentrated in the millions along the shores of Lake Ontario and not along the shores of Lake of the Woods, which represents a strong force to muster against redefining borders. 

Still, if the northwest wants a new position in Confederation, it should be as part of Manitoba which also would right a 122-year-old historical wrong.