Northern Ontario should look at changes to local governance structure: NPI report

By Ken Kellar
Local Journalism Initiative reporter

A new report is suggesting there’s a new way to organize and govern the larger unincorporated areas in the province’s northern regions.

Released by the Northern Policy Institute (NPI) last month, the report, titled “Time to Reorganize: Why Northern Ontario Should Follow BC’s Lead in Local Governance” was written by Anthony Noga and compares the governance of unincorporated areas to that of municipalities and First Nations communities across Ontario’s north. Noga used case studies of Pawgwasheeng (Pays Plat), Rossport, Schreiber and Terrace Bay regions in order to collect data, base decisions and formulate the report. The findings, as summarized by the report, is that these unincorporated areas in northern Ontario would benefit by implementing what are known as Regional Districts (RDs) that are similar in nature to the system in place in British Columbia.

“Based on the evidence analyzed, the optimal solution is British Columbia’s RDs, a form of regional governance that was designed to address the same issues this study looked at, has operated successfully for over 50 years, is flexible to local needs, appears to lower costs and raise service levels, and fosters collaboration among municipal, unincorporated, and First Nations communities,” it reads.

“Research and consultations with Northerners helped provide an overview of the existing structure in Northern Ontario, including how services are delivered and what government bodies are involved. This research phase identified that there are common issues across Northern Ontario, but also that each community has its own unique issues and requires the flexibility to make its own decisions on what is best for them.”

According to the report, B.C. has a Regional District system in place in its northern regions which the report describes as “a form of supra-municipal regional governance structure with overlapping political, administrative, and practical functions.” To simplify the matter, the RD’s act as a kind of two-tier government or loose federation of municipalities, unincorporated districts and potentially even First Nation communities that is tasked with providing services and governance within their boundaries.

“From the province’s perspective, RDs are akin to municipalities, in that they are ‘creatures of the province,’” it reads.

“All 27 RDs are members of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM), and RD representatives can and do serve on the organization’s Board of Directors. In short, B.C.’s RDs fit into the governance structure very similarly to any municipality.”

One of the benefits to moving to an RD system that the report highlights for northern Ontario is that the RD is better suited to delivering services to those who live within them.

“Local Service Boards (LSB) are currently the best vehicle for service delivery, but are limited to nine or fewer functions,” the report notes.

“RDs in B.C. have considerably more latitude, and are more-or-less bound only by what local taxpayers are willing to pay for. Some additional services that RDs commonly provide, according to Bish and Clemens (2008) include: animal control; building inspections; economic development; land-use planning and regulation; pest control; public transit; recycling; regional growth strategies; regional parks; and subdivision control.”

Currently most unincorporated areas in Ontario would not have access to these types of services. While the report argues not every unincorporated area would want all of these kinds of services, it argues that it’s better to have the option to opt out of a service that areas don’t want than it is to not be able to access one that an area wants or needs.

Additionally, the report notes there would be a number of difficulties to instead allow LSBs to provide more services, namely that as time goes on there are fewer people in these areas who can deliver them, due to aging populations.

“The shrinking and aging population of unincorporated areas is already struggling to find volunteers to provide vital services,” it reads.

“The professional staff of an RD, however, could help combat this capacity issue, and provide both crucial and less-crucial services that are currently lacking but desired. Some of those functions are ones that unincorporated citizens expressed a desire for. Again, each community is unique, but residents in a number of different communities lamented the status of land-use planning and regulation as well as solid waste management in their region.”

Concluding his report suggesting that northern Ontario explore a transition to a Regional District based system, Noga made 12 recommendations that these areas would likely need to consider when moving to such a system, including:

  • adapting the RDs to local needs, as opposed to a wholesale approach
  • allowing the communities within the RD “significant” input on what services are made available for their area, as well as how they are delivered and what the cost-sharing agreement will be
  • organize the RD boundaries to align as closely as possible with functional geographies to avoid spillovers of service
  • allow each RD to be governed by a Board of Directors made up of officials that are appointed from municipal councils and participating First Nations, and elected from unincorporated areas
  • allow the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) the capacity to make “timely and accurate property assessments in all northern communities”

Adapting a Regional District model has proven to be a benefit to communities in B.C. who encountered similar problems that the northern parts of Ontario are currently facing, the report says, and while it wouldn’t be an easy move, it’s suggested the change would be as beneficial for Ontario as it has been in other parts of the country.

“Northern Ontario’s vast territory, diverse economic zones, and variety of political units offer a complication not known in Southern Ontario,” the report reads.

“British Columbia’s solution — a successful model that informed observers consider one of the best local government apparatuses in the world — was designed and implemented to resolve many of the same issues Northern Ontario now faces. After five decades of study and enhancements, B.C.’s Regional Districts are the example Northern Ontario should emulate to enhance the operating ability of local government.”