IT IS supremely ironic that while anti-immigrant sentiment continues to burble up in many parts of Canada, the economies of less prosperous regions continue to struggle due to a shortage of the most basic economic resource: people.

It is often said that immigrants helped make this country what it is today, but clearly they are not coming to Northern Ontario in sufficient numbers of late.

While the rest of the province has grown by a substantial 25 per cent over the past two decades, “eight out of 11 Northern Ontario districts have experienced a population decline” over the same period, according to a new Northern Policy Institute (NPI) report.

The think-tank warned this week that Northern Ontario needs an influx of 50,000 “newcomers” over the two next decades — not to grow, but just to maintain population levels as they currently stand.

In other words, we’d have to attract enough people that — if clustered together — would roughly create another North Bay, or fill just under half of the current population of Thunder Bay.

That is frankly hard to imagine, even over a span of 20 years, without any specific federal or provincial policies to help make it happen.

Pockets of the North that have seen their numbers fall off significantly include Rainy River and Cochrane. There are also a handful of rebounding communities, like White River, which have an abundance of jobs but very few people to fill them.

Thunder Bay has been holding its own, with new infrastructure designed to attract and retain young professionals, such as a new medical school, a faculty of law and a revamped waterfront. But it’s doubtful that these developments will be enough to counter the Lakehead’s aging population and continued out-migration of youth to larger centres, usually in southern Ontario.

There is a direct correlation between population decline and pressure on residential taxes for those who choose to remain in the North and seek to retain basic services.

From time to time, there are discussions about requiring immigrants to locate in parts of the country that need them most. This is sometimes viewed as a restriction on liberty, but perhaps we need to revisit it. Would it be so draconian, for example, to require an aspiring Canadian — especially a person with a much-needed skill — to reside in the North for a minimum of five years?

Many permanent Northerners are imports from southern Ontario or other provinces, who came here by choice with the intention of staying only a year or two, only to find they liked it enough to call it home.

Our quality of life is worth maintaining.

But we need people to do it.

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