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Parliamentary assistant says Fontaine led north to start of a 'renaissance'.

Parliamentary assistant says Fontaine led north to start of a |renaissance'

Port Arthur MPP Taras Kozyra has indicated he would like to become the next minister of northern development.

However, Kozyra admits there are many politicians and others in the north who feel they are qualified for the job.

Rene Fontaine, the current minister and chairman of the board of directors of the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, is leaving provincial politics to devote his time to his ailing forestry business.

At a news conference in Kapuskasing last month, the Cochrane North MPP announced he will not seek re-election in the next provincial vote.

Fontaine will stay on as minister of northern development until an election is called or the cabinet is shuffled.

"I've been (Fontaine's) parliamentary assistant for two years and worked with Mr. Fontaine the year I wasn't," Kozyra said. "I've got a good working knowledge of the ministry."

Kozyra said Fontaine will be leaving office with the region on the brink of an economic rebirth.

"The renaissance of the north is just beginning," he said. "People are beginning to realize that Northern Ontario is more than just a provider of natural resources."

Kozyra said economic restructuring through the government's relocation efforts and the use of the heritage fund to diversify small-town economies are the seeds of the renaissance.

Kenora MPP Frank Miclash, who was Fontaine's parliamentary assistant for one year, said a cabinet shuffle is in the wind.

"I suspect there will be a significant shuffle after the next election because of Mr. (John) Sweeney's and Mr. Fontaine's resignations," he said. "There are two portfolios free and Mr. (Hugh) O'Neil has picked up a second portfolio (culture and communications)."

Miclash and Kozyra admitted there is nothing to prevent a southern Ontario MPP from being named minister of northern development.

"The minister doesn't necessarily have to be from the north, but unless the governing party is shut out in the north, selecting a southern MPP would not be looked on too kindly," noted Kozyra.

The Port Arthur MPP said he had been aware of the minister's concerns regarding his business interests for about six months.

"It's a difficult situation to see the northern economy suffering and being torn between remaining in politics and going back to your business," he said.

While the two Liberal MPPs praised Fontaine's performance as minister, Rene Piche, acting president of the Cochrane North Progressive Conservative Association, said the ministry suffered under his former political opponent.

"There is a feeling among the people here that his work was not as good as was expected," said the Kapuskasing businessman. "When (former Kenora MPP) Leo Bernier was the minister, he spent time travelling around the north.

"We need to get back to that, and hopefully the next minister will take us back in that direction."

Piche, the MPP for Cochrane North from 1981 to 1985 and minister of northern transportation in the Frank Miller cabinet, said Fontaine neglected the region's transportation needs, causing the economy to suffer.

"I don't think his decision (to leave politics) should hurt the ministry. It should help it. The Ontario Northland Transportation Commission was his responsibility and it was left alone while he was there," Piche said.

"Everyone knows that transportation is one of the keys to economic development."


In a telephone interview, Fontaine explained that the lumber industry is being hurt by the strong Canadian dollar and high interest rates.

However, as a government minister, he said he is not permitted to involve himself with his business, United Lumber of Hearst.

"As a shareholder and owner, I cannot leave it to trustees," he said. "I can't feel they can do it for me."

Fontaine believes that similar business hardships will keep other entrepreneurs from seeking elected office.

Fontaine, 56, noted that he has been in politics for a long time and is no longer a young man. He is fairly certain he won't be returning to political life.

As for his time at Queen's Park, Fontaine believes he was an effective voice who fought hard for the north. "I think I accomplished quite a bit."

He listed his accomplishments as the relocation of government jobs, the establishment of northern development councils and the municipal economic development program, the four-laning of sections of Highways 17 and 69, the construction of small airports and a cancer-care hospital, and increased opportunities for natives.

Fontaine said economic diversification is one job which remains to be accomplished.

"You cannot do that (diversification) in five years," he noted, adding that Sweden has a diversification program with a 20-year target.

However, Fontaine believes significant diversification has taken place in the past five years, particularly in the north's larger communities.

"The image of the north has gained quite a bit in the last four or five years," he said.

Fontaine was first elected to the Ontario legislature as MPP for Cochrane North in 1985, defeating Piche.

Fontaine was the only Liberal elected in Northern Ontario in the 1985 election. The victory ended 37 years of Tory dominance in the riding.

However, Fontaine resigned his seat in 1986 in response to conflict-of-interest allegations.

Stating that the people should be the judge of his actions, Fontaine won overwhelming voter support in a 1986 by-election.

In the fall of 1987, Fontaine was once again appointed minister of a remodelled northern development and native affairs department.

Born in Hearst, he is a third-generation lumberman and was instrumental in the formation of United Sawmill.

Fontaine's recent announcement prompted dentist Don Genier of Cochrane to declare his candidacy for the Liberal nomination in Cochrane North.

PHOTO : When first elected to the house, in 1985, Fontaine was the north's only Liberal MPP.
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Title Annotation:Rene Fontaine; Ontario
Author:Bickford, Paul
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Aug 1, 1990
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