Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition August 26, 2016
It took less than a year but Brian Pallister may already be facing his Kobayashi Maru. Admittedly, this is likely to be the first time anyone of my craft has endeavoured to tie the Manitoba premier with the fictional world of “Star Trek,” but for a moment or two please humour me.
There is a plot line in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” starring Canadian William Shatner, in which trainees for command had to save a fictitious ship known as the Kobayashi Maru. The ship put the trainee against what was considered to be the unwinnable scenario. There were two choices given — save the other ship while almost certainly leading to the destruction of their own or leave the other ship and ensure their own safety, but move on in the knowledge the Kobayashi Maru would ultimately meet its demise.
All that science fiction aside, Premier Brian Pallister may have already met his unwinnable scenario in northern Manitoba.
News broke this week that Tolko Industries, a logging company operating out of The Pas would be closing its doors by the end of the year. The closure was the second major blow to areas north of the 53rd parallel and effectively put close to 10 per cent of the community’s workforce on notice they would be out of a job. Tolko was the big fish in The Pas, and you would be hard-pressed to find someone in the community who didn’t work for or know someone who worked for the mill. It was one of the top-paying employers in the region, and much like the “company store” of yesteryear had a tie to almost every aspect of business and life in the community.
Taking it from bad to worse, the Tolko announcement comes on the heels of Omnitrax choosing to pull up stakes in Churchill, and must have felt like the second glancing blow to the premier in a very short time frame.
Manitoba’s north has long been a challenge for governments of both stripes. And in facing that challenge, Pallister is not alone. This time, though, he has differed from his predecessors. The premier thus far has refused to finance private business in a bid to stabilize the region.
The NDP had long been propping up fortunes in Manitoba’s north. This included a bailout for the mill operations in The Pas a number of years ago under former premier Gary Doer. Although deemed necessary at the time to create some form of stability, the footing that business in the north stood on was still quite precarious, and on Monday that footing gave way.
It is a painful reality of life in the north. Companies like Tolko and Omnitrax are hard-pressed to make a go of it when they are forced to manage all the increased costs of doing business in the region. Add this to the fact that so much of the local economy is tied to a single business and you run into a myriad of problems should that business call it quits.
As much as the premier is asking companies to make their own decisions about viability of life in the north, he must have a plan for the people. Refusing to bail out Omnitrax or falsely stabilizing Tolko is the right decision in the long run, but does little in making those affected by the closure feel any more comfortable in their government’s ability to assist in their time of need.
The premier need not swoop in like his predecessors did with boatloads of cash. He may at the very least, though, need to hasten his plan for achieving viability in Manitoba’s north. Plans like the Progressive Conservatives’ Yes! North initiative need to become a reality sooner rather than later. And the premier needs to have boots on the ground. The longer Pallister and company delay going up north to listen to the needs of the residents, the further isolated they will feel in believing their government actually cares for their well being.
Clearly, the premier and his new government hoped the north would hold out a while longer, thus allowing them to either plan, delay or shelve their promise to stabilize the area. As of Monday, though, that ship sailed. Furthermore without cabinet representation in the north, this government appears disconnected with what is happening there.
The optics of doing nothing is detrimental to the PC government. Although the votes may not exist there to make or break them, the cannon fodder that other parties can glean from a delay, or lack of action will speak volumes to their fortunes in the future.