Rust belt road trip and a tale of two provinces: Don Pittis

From soaring property prices to overcrowded tranportation, Toronto's troubles get lots of attention. But as Ontario defends its budget, the government must face the fact that in an economic sense it is actually governing two provinces with completely different needs.

While the GTA surges, province must figure out strategies to unlock the potential of Ontario's hinterland

The author took a winter holiday in Paris, London and Brussels, all without leaving Ontario, and saw a very different economy than what he's used to in Toronto. (Pittis family)

Based on what might be considered a geographic pun, we spent our family winter holiday visiting Paris, London and Brussels — all without leaving Ontario.

We met wonderful people, stayed in nice hotels and ate excellent food. But there was no escaping a bleak feeling that the thriving, almost frantic hustle and bustle of the Greater Toronto economy is not representative of the entire province.

As provincial Finance Minister Charles Sousa defends his $133.9-billion budget in the coming days, he must make the case that he is looking out for the interests of two Ontarios.

The urban resource

The complicated thing is that in a country that the world sees as an ice-box full of raw materials, a global-sized urban-industrial metropolis like the Golden Horseshoe — as the west end of Lake Ontario is called — is an incredibly valuable resource in itself.

Erupting from the epicentre of Canada's financial movers and shakers in the towers of downtown Toronto, the conurbation sprawls north, east and west: a hub of technology, world-leading hospitals, universities, arts, light industry, airports, superhighways and corporate head offices.

And that urban area continued to prosper on the back of the country's resource boom.

While the GTA continued to profit from western Canada's energy boom, Ontario's traditional industrial heartland was turning into a rust belt, hurt by a lack of investment and a rising loonie. (CBC)

With a population of about 8 million —  depending where you draw the circle, it contains more than half the province's entire population — the area is a tax gold mine. It is essential that some of the provincial revenue it produces is spent there, working out its big-city problems.

As my whirlwind tour of southwestern Ontario showed, there is something entirely different happening outside the GTA. There are certainly areas beyond the Golden Horseshoe that retain a big-city feel. However, Ottawa, London and Windsor no longer seem as vibrant as they once did.

Gap-toothed and shuttered

Northern industrial cities, from Thunder Bay to Timmins, have been hit by falling resource prices. Despite alternatives like Bombardier Transportation, on my last visit, the Lakehead did not feel as as vibrant as it has been. The ski resorts I remember from my youth have closed.

Yesterday, Sudbury's giant employer, the Brazilian mining company Vale, announced its losses had quadrupled as falling demand from China begins to bite.

Gorgeous old downtowns, like this one in Brussels, Ont., are waiting for their potential to be realized. (Don Pittis)

In smaller Ontario communities like Brantford, Brussels and Palmerston, where we stopped for lunch, the beautiful old downtowns are gap-toothed and shuttered. 

A visit to Goderich showed the town was still prospering from the world's largest salt mine, as Sifto digs further out under Lake Huron to produce and export tons of road salt. Nonetheless the town is also suffering from the closure of its Volvo heavy-equipment plant, announced just at the peak of 2008's oil boom.

Signs of rebirth

Despite the collapse of so much of Ontario's traditional manufacturing industry, there are signs a rebirth.

On a winding road through the tiny town of Beachville in Oxford County, we spied a huge solar farm in a valley across from the Thames River. According to a local businessman who installs what he calls "solar gardens," it is only one of 38 under construction.
Solar farms have begun to sprout across southwestern Ontario. This one, near Essex, Ont., installed by Arntjen Solar of Woodstock, Ont., and operated by R&D Energy based in nearby Chatham, is one of more than 38 under construction in the province.

At least some budget-related funds are slated to go into Ontario's green infrastructure, with a portion of the $1.9 billion expected to be generated in 2017 from Ontario's cap-and-trade plan promised for this.

As we drew closer back to the Greater Toronto metropolis, there were further signs of actual prosperity. Compared to our last visit a few years ago, Paris is seeing significant recovery. 

Paris on the Grand

Within easy driving distance of the Waterloo-Kitchener-Cambridge technology hub and nearby automotive plants, Paris appears to be thriving with a cool local coffee shop and top quality restaurants. Houses are under construction, the town's quaint hotel has reopened and even in the middle of winter, the Main Street storefronts were fully occupied and busy.

Everywhere we went, older couples — some of them well off refugees from Toronto high property prices — patronized upscale services.
The Benmiller Inn, at Benmiller, Ont., between Goderich and Brussels, offered good food and accommodation. (Don Pittis)

As Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz has said repeatedly, the low dollar will eventually lead to a restoration of Canada's industrial heartland. That rebirth has so far been slow.

But many of the things that Toronto has too much of: crowds, high property prices, congested roads and public transportation, make rural Ontario's underused buildings, hospitality, beauty and open spaces a treasure chest of untapped riches. Especially in an era when the internet makes location increasingly irrelevant.

It is the difficult job of the Ontario government to create the infrastructure and laws required to unlock that potential and make Ontario's two provinces into one. If they can do it, both sides will profit.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

​More analysis by Don Pittis​


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.


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