Eighteen years ago, the provincial government removed the District Municipality of Muskoka from Northern Ontario. Today, the community is looking for avenues to rejoin.
During the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference in Ottawa this past August, delegates from Muskoka, which includes the towns of Bracebridge, Gravenhurst, Huntsville, and others, presented Ontario’s Minister of Northern Development, Greg Rickford, with reasons why the community should rejoin Northern Ontario.
“I was pleased by the response we received,” says John Klinck, Muskoka’s district chair. “Of course, it’s a bad time right now with the municipal election cycle upon us, and the provincial government has its hands full in so many other areas, but it’s just something that, collectively, the mayors of Muskoka and their councils and our community believe should be addressed.”
In 2004, under Premier Dalton McGuinty, the provincial government removed Muskoka’s Northern Ontario designation in the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation Act and the Northern Services Board Act, limiting the community’s government funding.
“Because of the fiscal challenges left by the previous government, our government had to make some difficult decisions,” said Rick Bartolucci, Ontario’s previous Minister of Northern Development and Mines, in a statement released at the time of the decision. “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.”
Klinck, however, says the decision was motivated by petty politics. “The minister at the time was based in Sudbury, and he got it in his mind that if he removed Muskoka, there would be more money available for communities in the north,” he says. “What [the provincial government] really needs to do is recognize—as it claims to be doing—that northern/rural communities, be they in the north or in the south, need some help.”
The provincial government transferred Muskoka from Northern Ontario to Southern Ontario without consulting officials in the area, Klinck says. “It was just a line item sort of buried in a budget.” By stripping Muskoka of its designation, the area lost access to the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, a provincial government corporation that helps stimulate economic growth in northern communities by providing financial assistance.
Instead, Muskoka has spent the last 18 years competing for funding in Southern Ontario among major urban centres, including Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, Windsor, and others.
“There’s this perception of Muskoka as the land of the rich and famous,” Klinck says. That may be true of some seasonal residents, he adds, but Muskoka’s permanent residents struggle.
Klinck points out that Muskoka’s economy tends to be seasonal, catering to cottagers and tourists in the summer. “A lot of folks just don’t have work in the winter,” he says. The area’s population also has a disproportionate number of citizens over the age of 65 (28 per cent), compared to the rest of the province (18 per cent), putting an added strain on Muskoka’s healthcare system.
And real estate prices in the area have skyrocketed in the last two years, making it difficult for permanent residents to buy homes. This year, the median price of a non-waterfront property in Muskoka was $790,000, versus $337,000 in 2018, according to the district.
“We’re really having a tough time,” Klinck says.
Surprisingly, the pandemic applied a temporary salve to Muskoka’s woes, drawing young people to the area. “If they have decent internet, they can work from anywhere. And that provides another measure of disposable income that moves its way through a community,” Klinck says.
But as borders reopen and more jobs move back to in-person work, it will be difficult for Muskoka to retain these new citizens. By rejoining Northern Ontario, Muskoka would gain access to additional funding, allowing it to attract more business opportunities, and keep young people in the area.
Under the federal government, Muskoka is considered part of Northern Ontario. As a result, it receives funding from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Northern Ontario (FedNor), the federal government’s financial assistance agency for northern communities.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Klinck says of the discrepancy between the two levels of government. What’s even stranger, he points out, is that when the provincial government stripped Muskoka of its designation, it split the district’s political riding. The area’s MPP represents both Parry Sound and Muskoka. But Parry Sound is still considered part of Northern Ontario, while everywhere below is considered Southern Ontario. “It puts our local MPP…in a very awkward position,” Klinck says. “I mean, one-third of their constituents have more opportunities than the other two-thirds.”
There’s been no word from the Ministry of Northern Development about Muskoka’s status, but Klinck says he hopes the current government will let them rejoin.
From his perspective, Muskoka’s always been a part of Northern Ontario. “As soon as you drive up Hwy. 400 from Toronto, or you cross the Muskoka line from Simcoe County, and suddenly everything changes. The granite outcroppings pop up, there are beautiful tree canopies, and a proliferation of lakes and streams,” he says. “But on the social side, Muskoka suffers.”
The Ministry of Northern Development did not respond to comment on Muskoka’s chances of rejoining Northern Ontario.
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