It’s Time The Minister of Finance Reverse the Procedure
In 2004, lead by his infinite wisdom, the then Liberal Finance Minister Greg Sorbara under the reign of Dalton McGuinty, gave Ontario something that can only be described as nothing less than a provincial vasectomy. It severed the District of Parry Sound/Muskoka in half and had Muskoka banished from the designated area known as Northern Ontario. In doing so, the province married its granite cladded lake district of Muskoka with its neighbour, the considerably flat and passive food belt of Central Ontario.
Among the many things this ridiculous act did to the residents of Muskoka was to disallow studded tires on cars and cut off additional support for lower income families.
One only has to step out their front door in Gravenhurst or Huntsville to witness the incredible mounds of snow and icy conditions experienced this season. Meanwhile, Barrie and the rest of Central Ontario are forced to make snow in order to keep their ski industry alive. Additional traction in Muskoka would allow for safer driving and less traffic fatalities. However, for Muskoka residents it’s illegal to have studs, even when next door the residents of Parry Sound District, who experience the exact same weather, are allowed to drive safe.
If you are a low income earner and live in the town of Parry Sound, you can receive a Northern Ontario Energy Credit. If you live in Huntsville, which is parallel to Parry Sound, you can not.
During the great merge of the 90’s when municipalities amalgamated, the northern end of the Muskoka Lakes (that being the top of Lakes Rosseau and Joseph) was separated from Muskoka and placed into the District of Parry Sound. So in 2004, when Sorbara and the Liberals “denorthernized” Muskoka, it severed a community that for the last century was considered “gateway to the north”.
It has in fact become a nightmare for many of Ontario’s other Ministries. Some are still paired under the Parry Sound/Muskoka banner but with half of their district falling outside of designated Northern Ontario region, funding is complicated. This includes everything from the Ministry of Health to the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sport.
Not all departments with the Ontario Government are blind. Some still recognize that the Districts of Parry Sound and Muskoka are kindred spirits. The electoral district remains Muskoka/Parry Sound and shares the same MPP , however his constituents have different status. When they recently created new Regional Tourism Organizations, Muskoka and Parry Sound were grouped together into RTO 12 because of their physical and cultural similarities.
The severing of Muskoka from Northern Ontario was no more than a politically motivated act demonstrated by the fact that in 2000, Ernie Eaves, the conservative MPP for Parry Sound/Muskoka and Sorbara’s predecessor, recognized the similarities and included Muskoka as part of Northern Ontario region. But when the Conservatives were ousted and McGuinty came to power, Sorbara, wasted no time and gave Muskoka/Parry Sound a lobotomy in 2004, even though that federally Muskoka is still considered Northern Ontario and qualifies for FedNor economic support .
There are several reasons why the Liberals reversed the designation. In spite of them winning the election in 2003, Muskoka/Parry Sound remained Conservative when Norm Miller, son of the former Conservative premiere Frank Miller, retained the regional seat that he won in 2001. So in order to punish the residents for re-electing him, the Liberals undid Eave’s proclamation of 2000 and in 2004 they severed Muskoka from Northern Ontario.
From the outside, Muskoka is portrayed as playland for the wealthy with its mega-millionaires and movie stars with cottages! This is a complete distortion of the truth.
In Muskoka, wealthy residents are a minority. Famous residents like Goldie Hawn , who has since sold and left Canada, seem to always get the eye of the press.Unfortunately, facts like Muskoka/Parry Sound has the fastest growing need for social assistance in the province, just isn’t newsworthy. So with the image of the wealthy seasonal minority outshining the residents in need, it was fairly easy for the Liberals to slip this deed by without much protest.
By removing Muskoka from the designated North, it was no longer under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Northern Mines and Development. Why should this matter since Muskoka doesn’t have a mining industry?
In 1988, under the Ministry of Northern Ontario Mines and Development, the previous Peterson Government (Liberal) created the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund (NOHF) with the purpose of supporting development in Ontario’s disadvantaged north. As FedNor was considered a federal Conservative triumph, (championed by Parry Sound/Muskoka MP Tony Clement) NOHF was for the provincial Liberals. However, when it came to eligibility, even with all the aforementioned similarities and ( according to Stats Canada); 57.1% of all permanent households in Muskoka earn less than $30,000/year and 70.7% earn less than $40,000/year; that on average, women in Muskoka earn 34.8% less than men; plus the numbers of homeless is rising and affordable housing decreasing, the Ontario Liberals don’t consider Muskoka disadvantaged enough. They only see movie stars and captains of industry.
Hidden within NOHF is support for sustainable cultural industry activity. This includes the television and film . Complicated and convoluted like most film financing formulas, NOHF’s method is right up there. Simplified, the fund will return portions of the money a production spends in Northern Ontario. The more Northern Ontario residents it hires and money spent to build sets, rent, accommodate crew etc., the more points a producer receives. The bigger the credits the bigger the refund…up to a certain point.
The core talent and funds for most productions originate from outside the sanctioned Northern Ontario region. The areas which see the most activity are Sudbury ( boasting a studio in a converted arena), Sault Ste Marie, North Bay and Thunder Bay. Parry Sound also hosts the odd production and in fact a team of production personnel purchased an old sawmill/warehouse and converted it into a 10,000 square foot sound studio. Ironically, it sits just on the north side of the road that separates Muskoka from Northern Ontario.
Obviously filming in Northern Ontario has its limitations. Only when scripts call for certain elements like a small town look (which is available closer to Toronto but without the Northern Ontario credits), rocky terrain dotted by pristine lakes, or specific locations like a mine, Sudbury’s Science North or the vastness of Lake Superior, does a production need to film in Northern Ontario. Without the credits provided by NOHF, it’s unlikely that a film industry in Northern Ontario would exist. And so kudos to the Liberals for creating an industry which otherwise would not be.
Until we see more productions being conceived and produced in the Northern Ontario with commercial potential, the industry must rely on outsiders bringing productions into the region. Shooting outside of the GTA is an expensive undertaking . Additional costs like accommodations, travel, per diems and other expenses jack up the production budget. NOHF compensates in order to stimulate the economy and create jobs.
So because NOHF does not support Muskoka many of its unique locations are overlooked. This includes all of Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, Huntsville, Port Carling and Bala plus Muskoka icons like the steamship Segwun, the Key to Bala and the array of classic hotels, cottages and homes . Muskoka also has an airport capable of landing large commercial jets. In addition, without NOHF, the chance to employ and develop a contingency of trained support crew members in a region that relies on seasonal work and has high unemployment will never happen.
Ask any locations manager scouting for a film in the District of Parry Sound. Because of the restrictions imposed by the Northern Ontario boundaries, bringing more films to the Parry Sound/Muskoka area and growing the local industry is near impossible.
It’s time the Ontario Liberal Government stop playing politics with our future and GIVE BACK TO MUSKOKA IT’S NORTHERN ONTARIO STATUS.
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The Honourable Charles Sousa
Minister of Finance
Vince Grittani (Words Talk Productions)
Executive Director, Rosseau Culture and Arts Project