MACLEAN'S, CANADA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE

A NEW VISION FOR THE NEAR NORTH

Richard Rohmer's big idea for the next century: develop Canada’s north the way Sir John A. Macdonald strung together the south

ALEXANDER ROSS March 1 1969
MACLEAN'S, CANADA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE

A NEW VISION FOR THE NEAR NORTH

Richard Rohmer's big idea for the next century: develop Canada’s north the way Sir John A. Macdonald strung together the south

ALEXANDER ROSS March 1 1969

A NEW VISION FOR THE NEAR NORTH

MACLEAN'S, CANADA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE

Richard Rohmer's big idea for the next century: develop Canada’s north the way Sir John A. Macdonald strung together the south

ALEXANDER ROSS

RICHARD ROHMER, ex-fighter pilot, former Tory backroom boy, corporation lawyer, land-development expert and promoter of a portable gas station, has a telescope in his penthouse office in Toronto. That telescope is the tip-off: for despite his caution, his punctilious manner, his careful legal mind, Richard Rohmer is a flaming visionary, a dreamer of extravagant dreams.

It was Rohmer who invented an idea you’ll be hearing a lot about in the next few months: the Mid-Canada Development Corridor. At the moment, it’s simply that: an idea — one that could cost about five billion dollars to implement. But very few people who have examined it have failed to become excited by Rohmer’s northern vision. For what he’s proposing is nothing less than a second Canada — an area of development and population growth through a crescent-shaped corridor stretching across the nation’s midsection that could become one of the world’s more productive regions, and the full-time home of several million Canadians.

Let Rohmer tell it: “I’m not talking about Diefenbaker’s northern vision. I’m

not even sure what the old gentleman had in mind. This area, which we call midCanada, isn’t the true north of Eskimos, igloos and Farley Mowat. We’re talking about an area farther south, where the climate is cold but acceptable, and where people can live and work and raise their kids. It’s a simply fantastic opportunity. We have the chance to do for mid-Canada what Sir John A. Macdonald did for southern Canada: string it together with a railroad, build a chain of long-cycle cities that are fit to live in, and add a second tier to the country. What’s the alternative? Canada will have 100 million extra people a century from now. Where are they going to live? Do we just make every southern city as big and impersonal as Toronto? Or do we try to build a different kind of civilization farther north?”

Rohmer himself doesn’t profess to have the answers to these questions. But ever since the idea began percolating in his mind two years ago, he’s been working with a decidedly unvisionary skill at selling the concept to the nation.

His first step, he says, was to adapt the old Mackenzie King technique of disguising radical changes in the grey cloak of

respectability. “Canadians are the world’s greatest credential examiners,” says Rohmer. “There was no point in my advocating this thing publicly until I’d got some certified expert to agree with me.”

So he retained Acres Research and Planning Limited, a Toronto-based engineering firm, to do some preliminary research on the feasibility of developing the near north. The result, 11 weeks later, was a careful evaluation of the mid-north’s economic and geographic assets — something, surprisingly, that had never been attempted before. The Acres team of engineers and planners added little to Rohmer’s basic idea; but their inventory of various sociographic factors — climate, resources, soil, hydro potential, vegetation — delineated mid-Canada’s boundaries for the first time. These boundaries define a horseshoe-shaped arc stretching from Labrador to Inuvik — the pink area outlined on the map of Canada in the picture above. More important, the Acres study lent the imprimatur of one of Canada’s biggest and most imaginative engineering firms to an idea that, until then, had been just that — one man’s idea.

Actually, the mid-Canada concept is more of an approach than an idea. At

resent, says Rohmer, “we’re developing íe north by accident — the accident of /here resources are found.” The altemave is for Canada to decide what we want 3 happen in mid-Canada over the next entury, and plan accordingly.

Probable first step in the Rohmer-Acres lan is construction of a 4,000-mile railway through the corridor; 700 miles are iere already. But the Acres study does ot rule out the utilization of groovier »ms of transport: Hovercraft, solids pipenes, cargo submarines. “The point is,” ays Acres President Norman Simpson, that it will take five to 10 years just to omplete a detailed feasibility study. But y that time, technological advances may lake the mid-Canada project even more ;/isible than it is now.”

What’s needed to get the planning arted is a firm commitment of some ind from Ottawa, the 10 provinces and e two territorial governments. As a first rep to obtaining that commitment, Rohmer /orked with three universities to set up nonprofit foundation to promote the lea full-time. Next August, the plan’s jpporters — including 11 universities — re sponsoring a conference at Lakehead

University to add flesh to the bones of Rohmer’s idea. The conference’s invitation list — federal deputy ministers, captains of industry, provincial politicians, key academics — is shrewdly designed to plug all the various Canadian Establishments into supporting the concept.

Acres Limited, which is aware of the immense PR value of being associated with such a grandiose nation-building scheme, has spent nearly $100,000 promoting the concept. Acres has even commissioned a half-hour film, Leave This Not to Cain, that explains the idea and dwells heavily on some of the space-age technologies that might assist in midnorthern development — bubble-top cities, subterranean shopping malls and the like.

But there’s a danger in overemphasizing the need for such gimmickry. The whole point of Rohmer’s mid-Canada scheme, and the mighty truth the public will have to grasp before the concept can be taken seriously, is that you don’t have to be a mad trapper to live up there. In most parts of the corridor the climate is, in Rohmer’s phrase, “acceptable in summer, harsh in winter.” But the same can be said of most Canadian cities. It’s much

more probable that only minor adaptations will be needed to develop the mid-north. One of the more revolutionary recent developments in the construction industry, for instance, has been the introduction of plastic sheeting, which is swathed around structures while they’re being built, thus permitting year-round construction. Humble innovations like this, rather than dramatic new super-technologies, may be all it takes to make the mid-north livable, as opposed to merely habitable.

As a matter of fact, there are at least 200,000 Canadians who would insist that the corridor is eminently livable already. They’re residents of Whitehorse, Labrador City, Rouyn-Noranda, the Hay River district, Flin Flon and the Lakehead — the six areas designated in the Rohmer-Acres plan as potential growth centres each capable of supporting 100,000 or more.

Indeed, at the Lakehead it’s happening already. Next year’s amalgamation of Port Arthur and Fort William will create a city of 110,000 — and a forerunner of the kind of life that several million of our grandchildren may be pleased to lead a century from now. For a glimpse of some of the portents, turn the page.