Look North economic strategy battles difficult future north of 53rd parallel

A mix of optimism, a fresh start and a healthy dose of reality pervade the Look North report on the economy of northern Manitoba.

Task force comes up with action plan for helping economy stabilize amid layoffs and shutdowns

Look North co-chair Chuck Davidson says the region needs long-term strategies, not quick fixes. (CBC)

A mix of optimism, a fresh start and a healthy dose of reality pervade the Look North report on the economy of northern Manitoba.

"What we're suggesting is this is a starting point so we can capitalize on the opportunities that exist in the north," said Look North task force co-chair Chuck Davidson, president of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce.

The Look North report and action plan for northern Manitoba economic development was produced by a provincially appointed task force that held its first meeting in December 2016. The task force is co-chaired by Davidson and Christian Sinclair, an independent business adviser and member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation.

The second paragraph of the action plan acknowledges "the region is in decline, suffering significant job losses in key industries."

Mining giant Vale is in the midst of closing its Birchtree Mine and will shut down its smelter and refining facilities in Thompson by mid-2018. Approximately 700 staff will be affected by the downsizing.

The railway to Churchill was closed by a late-May flood and negotiations between Omnitrax Rail and the federal government to repair it and arrange a purchase of the infrastructure from the Denver-based company have dragged on far longer than people along the line had hoped.

Davidson, who grew up in northern Manitoba, admits there are major challenges facing the region.

Hundreds of workers in Manitoba's mining industry face layoffs. (CBC)
"Virtually every community in northern Manitoba, there is always that sense that, OK, what happens if the mine has a lifespan and it closes, or what happens if Manitoba Hydro is going to be done all its work and people are going to leave?" Davidson said.

The Look North strategy is a starting point to changing atitudes in the north, he said.

The report calls for investments in youth training and tourism as well as the creation of economic bonds with Indigenous communities.

One challenge will be to keep people in the north who have lost their jobs because of closures and project completions, Davidson said.

"There is a real skill set of those employees that is going to be lost. Are there different things that we can look to create or different opportunities from an economic development strategy based on the skill set that those individuals have?" 

Another major challenge will be to foster a entrepreneurial culture in the north, he said. That may mean training, tax incentives or grants to kick-start the effort.

The Look North report calls for the next step to be the creation of a commitee made up of northerners who will set specific targets and establish "joint action groups" for each of the key areas identified as critical to transforming the region.

The province of Manitoba has to take a lead role in the intitiative, Davidson said, and while he doesn't expect the government to prop up existing but declining businesses, it will have to invest to help the region grow.