Statistics Canada looks at the state of northern communities

By Natali Trivuncic
Staff Writer

On Monday, the Northern Policy Institute (NPI) hosted the event Data and Ontario’s Northern Communities: A conversation with the Chief Statistician of Canada together with Statistics Canada.

NPI performs research, collects and disseminates evidence, and identifies policy opportunities to support the growth of sustainable northern communities.

The event was an opportunity for Statistics Canada to promote the importance of the census and how information collected from it highlights areas that could be improved.

The event was hosted by Charles Cirtwill, president & CEO of NPI, and looked at how the pandemic has impacted many aspects of northern Ontario from businesses to employment opportunities.

At 800,000 kilometers squared, northern Ontario is bigger than seven provinces – eight if you count the rest of Ontario. Only Quebec, British Columbia and the three territories are physically bigger than the combined regions of northern Ontario.

Cirtwill said because of northern Ontario’s large geography, the population is very dispersed, making it difficult to collect and release good data.

Anil Arora, chief statistician from Statistics Canada was able to fill in the gaps of what they gathered about northern Ontario communities over the last year.

Businesses all over the country and province have been greatly affected by COVID but Arora said businesses in northern Ontario have bounced back faster than in the rest of the province, after an initial shock during the early weeks of last spring’s shutdown.

Although businesses have bounced back, Arora said this does not mean that they have been profitable. In 2020, four in 10 businesses in northern Ontario saw revenues drop by 40 per cent or more from the year before.

Business challenges are often accompanied by employment challenges and northern Ontario has experienced more than its fair share of both, Arora said.

“Total employment in Ontario has recovered 10 per cent since last May. But it’s only recovered four per cent in the northern regions. And looking more closely However, you’ll see sharp variations in employment by sector.”

Arora said the accommodation and food sector in northern Ontario was hit particularly hard, with employment falling significantly during the initial lockdown. As of this May, employment in the sector has rebounded by 40 per cent.

The mining sector saw a 10 per cent jump in employment between 2019 and 2020. Arora said this is due to the number of new mines and new training programs geared towards encouraging more young people from Indigenous communities to work in the sector, despite the gap in pay.

“Although the salaries of Indigenous people working in mining jobs are higher than the average for all Canadian workers, our data still show that they make five to 10 per cent less on the dollar than their non-Indigenous counterparts working in Ontario’s different mining activities, and hopefully these programs will help resolve that wage gap,” Arora said.

While northern Ontario does have a larger aging population, Arora said it also has the largest number of children under 14 than the rest of the province. In the last three years, more people from southern Ontario have moved to northern Ontario which has offset population losses as more youth leave for other parts of the country.

One in six northern Ontarians identify as Indigenous according to the last census, Arora said and across the province, fewer than one in 40 do.

“I think data is a really important commodity,” Arora said. “If used properly, in a transparent way, building in the kind of measures that protect privacy and confidentiality, I think it can open up some really interesting opportunities into the future.”

Arora said in the near future, the legacies of the pandemic will be housing affordability, and challenges related to mental health. He adds that these issues are also intensifying in other regions across the country.