Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

As province goes south, look north

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The Golden Boy points north; so should the Selinger government. Adding up the potential of hydro development, a remodelled Port of Churchill, exploring mineral riches and unlocking the huge potential of aboriginal youth yields a prosperous recipe for all Manitobans.

Economic and social policy work hand in hand. Developing the north's resources will not be possible without full partnership with the people who live there, mostly aboriginals, some on reserve, others in communities outside the reserve, who will demand a share if those resources are on treaty lands.

Manitoba's swift-flowing northern rivers are not fully harnessed and won't be without a fuller public discussion about what the province can afford and what gamble we're prepared to take. The new dams proposed by Manitoba Hydro and the transmission line necessary to move the power south are the most important decisions facing this province. What is at stake is more than $18 billion of investment at a time when the economics of energy are working against Manitoba's hydro resources.

The government, Manitoba Hydro and the Public Utilities Board will make multi-generational decisions at an economic and political moment in time, an unenviable task that asks mere mortals to predict the future. Those decisions need to be informed by consulting leading citizens with no political axe to grind. There is no doubt those rivers will be dammed. The question is, when is the best time and who are the best customers? One thing is certain: Northern Manitobans deserve a piece of the action.

The Port of Churchill has been hanging by a thread for years, even after the federal government sold it to OmniTrax, a private company headquartered in Denver in 1997. The sale price was $7, plus GST. Now that the Canadian Wheat Board has lost its marketing monopoly, the port will either diversify or die. A federal subsidy will keep the port afloat for the next few years but after that it's anybody's guess.

There is hope and there is opportunity. The private grain companies are using the port and will continue to as long as the railroad is reliable and the port facilities upgraded. Diversification is the key to long-term survival and there are ideas floating around that could be truly transformational. Alberta's oil is landlocked; it can't get to export markets unless pipelines are built or railroads are used or both. The controversy over moving resources to the West Coast via pipeline is paralyzing. How about if that bitumen moved across the northern Prairies to Churchill and then offshore to markets in Europe and Asia? Yes, there are lots of questions about length of season, environmental protection and necessary infrastructure investments. This idea needs plenty of fleshing out but it should be done and the Selinger government can encourage research that the private sector would be keen to fund.

Manitoba's mining industry, mostly in the north, is in the dumper. There are 40 companies active now, compared to 60 in 1998. Investment is sluggish and the relationship between the government, mining companies and aboriginal leaders who must be consulted is, to put it mildly, strained. There is a group sitting down together to try to move things along but the pace makes snails look rushed. The government needs to streamline regulations and ensure enough staff is in place; the mining companies have to get used to the fact that they must consult aboriginal leaders; and the aboriginal leaders ought to stop waiting for the perfect deal and agree to a few good ones.

Mining activity is booming to the north of us in Nunavut. Manitoba Hydro should send power north of the 60th parallel to help develop those resources; federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is right to promote an all-weather road from northern Manitoba to Rankin Inlet. Now he has to find some money to fund it.

All of this economic potential will need an educated workforce. That workforce is in our northern communities, waiting to be unleashed. The conditions on many northern reserves is a national disgrace and the quality of education available to children is inferior. The federal government is responsible for funding but the Business Council is encouraging all levels of government to park their jurisdictional squabbling at the door and work with communities and the Frontier School Division to give those kids a fighting chance to get a decent education.

Northern Manitoba is our future, if we can get our act together. It would be refreshing if provincial Finance Minister Stan Struthers had some inspirational words for us when he delivers his budget on Tuesday. He'll find them if he looks to the north, just as the Golden Boy does.


Jim Carr is the president and CEO of the Business Council of Manitoba, a group of 71 CEOs of Manitoba's leading companies.

This is the first of a three-part analysis of Manitoba issues that should be addressed in the April 16 provincial budget. Friday: Manitoba's biggest deficit is in infrastructure.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 11, 2013 A13


Updated on Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 9:36 AM CDT: replaces photo

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