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“Team Muskoka” working to return Muskoka’s northern status

Nearly two decades ago, the provincial government decided to remove Muskoka from the north. Now area officials believe it’s time to be reinstated.

Muskoka’s six mayors, its district chair, and MPP were involved in a meeting with Greg Rickford, the Minister of Northern Development, in hopes of rejoining Northern Ontario. The meeting was held on Jan. 23 at the annual Rural Ontario Municipal Association conference in Toronto.

Provincially, the district is currently defined as being part of Eastern Ontario. However, federally, Muskoka is part of Northern Ontario.

Jeff Lehman, district chair, says the provincial programs in the north are designed for communities like Muskoka. “The challenges of running a business, running an organization, building the economy, or living in the north are different than living in the south,” he says. Lehman points out that the population is more spread out in the north than it is in other areas of Ontario. “We live in the Canadian Shield,” he adds. “Building everything is more expensive here because you’re dealing with bedrock, because of the topography.”

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Lehman notes how Muskoka’s economy is largely based on tourism. “The Northern Ontario programs are designed to reflect that,” he explains.

Lehman points out how Parry Sound is considered part of Northern Ontario and how both it and Muskoka are considered to be part of the north by the federal government. “It’s a bit bizarre,” he says.

Muskoka was taken out of Northern Ontario in 2004 by Rick Bartolucci, the Minister of Northern Development and Mines at the time. “Because of the fiscal challenges left by the previous government, our government had to make some difficult decisions,” Bartolucci said in Nov. 2004. “We need to ensure resources earmarked for northern communities are in fact directed accordingly, rather than areas outside of what is traditionally known to be Northern Ontario.”

When competing for funding provincially, Lehman says where Muskoka is currently placed geographically doesn’t let them get a fair shot. “We do have access to programs but they’ve been designed for places like Kingston, Ontario, and Renfrew, and the economy of Eastern Ontario,” he explains. 

“Our towns and townships in the District of Muskoka should have the ability to apply to programs where they have a fair chance of success,” says Lehman.

“It went well,” says Lehman about the meeting. He points out that Rickford, who is the MPP for Kenora-Rainy River, is from the north. “I think he understands the issue and the case we’re making,” says Lehman.

Asked about the government’s position on having Muskoka rejoin the north and if he believes it makes sense for that to happen, Erika Robson, Rickford’s press secretary and senior communications advisor said in a statement to the newsroom that the government will “review their request while simultaneously working across government to identify opportunities for the district that will improve the quality of life for all who call the Municipality of Muskoka home.”

“We understand that communities across the district are experiencing challenges, including broadband coverage, and with high transportation, construction and servicing costs,” she continued. 

Lehman says during the delegation, they laid out how Muskoka’s economy is similar to the north rather than anywhere else. “It’s not that we want to muscle our way in and then everyone else in Northern Ontario gets less,” he adds. Lehman says they went as far as to suggest additional investment to current Northern Ontario programs. 

“I’m continuing to work with local municipalities and the district on this request,” says Smith in a statement to the newsroom. “At the ROMA Conference, my municipal colleagues and I had a productive meeting to discuss logical next steps around data gathering and analysis as well as pros and cons that any status change would bring about.”

Lehman says that attending the meeting as “team Muskoka” with all of its mayors and MPP puts them in a good position to be heard. “Having all the mayors in the meeting, along with myself, and MPP Smith I think was great because what we were able to show the government was a really united voice from team Muskoka and that probably carries that much more weight than just going one or another of us and saying that this is a good idea,” he says. 

“Ultimately, this is a decision of the provincial government,” says Lehman. He adds that while it’s more difficult than moving a few lines of a map, returning Muskoka to the north “just makes sense.”

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