Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to this important initiative for northern Ontario.
I want to say right off the top that given that I was the member who introduced this bill initially about two years ago, it was never intended in any way, shape or form to be a criticism of FedNor as it now exists, the good people who work for FedNor and its programs, nor was it intended in any way to be a criticism of the Community Futures Development Corporations. We know the good work they do across northern Ontario and in other parts of Canada.
However, this bill was initiated out of a concern that a number of us had based on what we heard and read, both from the Conservatives and from the Liberals at that point in time. Before I get into that, I want to say how much I appreciate that the member from North Bay has picked up the bill and tabled it in this Parliament, and has been able to get it before the House so that we can stand here today and debate it.
I give credit, as well, to my colleague from Nickel Belt who has gotten behind this issue. He has worked very hard with me and the rest of the northern Ontario caucus of seven New Democrat members to make sure that whatever we do is in the best possible interest of northern Ontario, and that we put all our energy and resources behind it so that at the end of the day it is in keeping with what we know is needed in northern Ontario.
I also want to say to the member for Kenora, as he chirps away over there and continues to make noise in this debate, that he is right in that FedNor was brought forward initially by Mr. Bernier and Mr. Mulroney. At that time it was a Conservative initiative to try to help northern Ontario. They recognized the very cyclical nature of the resource base of the economy of that wonderful part of our country.
What stimulated me, in partnership with my colleagues in the NDP caucus, to move this bill forward in the first place was discussion, dialogue and debate that we heard in a number of elections that a Conservative government, if it were given a chance to have a majority government, would do away with regional development agencies altogether. That would be devastating for northern Ontario and for FedNor.
In 2004 we heard discussion from the minority Liberal government that the Liberals wanted to expand FedNor to become FedOntario, and to dilute the little bit of money that we get as it is and to spread it over that large part of this province that is highly populated and in fact has all kinds of resources at its disposal that we do not have access to in northern Ontario. We felt that was wrong and that we needed to do something.
We continued to see a bleed-off of some of the resources that FedNor initially had on northern Ontario by way of the new offices that began to pop up in places like Barrie, London and Ottawa under the banner of FedNor. One can argue what one likes about the budget and how it is still focused and targeted on northern Ontario, but when offices are set up under the rubric of FedNor in other places in Ontario that obviously are not in northern Ontario, we know that resources are being bled off and the focus is going someplace else. We need all of the focus, attention and resources that we can get and garner in northern Ontario.
Over the last couple of years in the House, I have watched the development of the Quebec regional development agency. It became a stand-alone agency with all the bells and whistles that goes with that kind of organization to serve the province of Quebec.
I had the pleasure of attending a meeting in Halifax with the Atlantic development agency. I saw the budget, the number of people who worked for that agency, and the way that agency is engaged in a comprehensive and all-involved way with provincial and municipal agencies, and giving leadership down in that part of our country. That agency is well respected and effective.
I thought that we deserved something similar in northern Ontario, for the very resource-based, cyclical economy that is there to make sure that it stabilizes and indeed grows and that we take advantage of some of the tremendous opportunities in northern Ontario. It is an area of the country that has unique and exciting advantages and opportunities, but it is also challenged in many ways, when it comes to its geography and the distances involved. Certainly the weather and transportation are huge issues up our way.
I decided once I tabled the bill two years ago that I should consult with the people of northern Ontario. I went into seven communities across northern Ontario. I went to Kenora, the community where the member who just spoke is from. I even went to Bracebridge which some might debate whether or not it belongs in northern Ontario. One of the questions I asked was, do we need a full-fledged regional development agency for northern Ontario? I met with community leaders, business people and people from other organizations in those communities. Because there was some sense of a bleed-off from northern Ontario into other parts of the province, if we were going to set up a full-fledged regional development agency with all of the resources that it would require, I asked them if we needed to be very clear about what exactly formed northern Ontario.
I put out the suggestion initially that we should go back to the original boundary for northern Ontario which was known by many, particularly trappers, miners and others who worked in northern Ontario as the French and Mattawa rivers. That was the dividing line. When I began to talk about that and challenged the folks in northern Ontario to work with me to see if that was the dividing line, it was then that the Liberal member from North Bay tabled his bill. He was getting a bit of heat from that part of the province. It was suggested he was supporting that dividing line when in fact he was not. I was the one who was putting that question out there.
I talked to people in Bracebridge, in the Parry Sound--Muskoka area to see what they thought about it as well. What I heard across the north and into the Parry Sound--Muskoka area was that we need a renewed and better resourced regional development agency. People overwhelmingly sent that message. That is what I heard in consultations with people in Kenora, Thunder Bay, Fort Frances, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Espanola and Bracebridge.
When I asked the question about the boundary though, there was not quite the same concern about that because they felt that if we had a full-fledged regional development agency with all the resources that come with it, we could probably serve an area as big as one that would include the area of Parry Sound--Muskoka.
I then approached the minister responsible for FedNor who was the member of Parliament for that area and suggested to him that if he would work with me and with the member from North Bay to implement this new regional development agency for northern Ontario, I would have no difficulty including Parry Sound--Muskoka in that territory. When I went to Parry Sound--Muskoka, those folks made it very clear that they felt a great attachment to northern Ontario. They felt that their area resembled in many ways the north of the province as opposed to southern Ontario.
We moved forward and decided that it was a good idea and that we had the support of the north. It is why today I stand in the House with my colleagues from the NDP and particularly the seven members of Parliament from northern Ontario to say that we will support this bill and the member for Nipissing—Timiskaming as he moves the bill through the House.