Imagine a Flin Flon with hundreds of thousands of residents, freeway access to Alberta and immense political influence.
While this scenario may sound far-fetched, it was key to a long-forgotten 1960s- and -’70s-era proposal to establish a “second Canada” across the northern swath of the country.
The Mid-Canada Development Corridor (MCDC), as it was known, was a multibillion-dollar strategy to develop new mines, industries and transportation networks – along with six major population centres – across the Canadian North.
Flin Flon would have been one of those major centres by virtue of its central location and accessibility to resources.
“We could see that [Flin Flon] did have, 40 years ago, great potential,” said MCDC architect Richard Rohmer, speaking to The Reminder by phone from his home in Collingwood, Ont.
Rohmer, 92, recalls visiting Flin Flon in 1969 when he and other MCDC proponents chartered a flight that included stops in northern Manitoba and the Northwest Territories.
The trip gave them a visual of communities involved in the proposal along with a chance to speak to locals on the ground.
“The people we did talk to were positive, because anything, even today, that speaks of prosperity, the future and opportunity is always, if you’re a Canadian, intriguing,” Rohmer said.
Upon seeing Flin Flon firsthand, Rohmer said he could “absolutely” envision its future expansion.
How much expansion? Flin Flon and four other centres – Whitehorse, Labrador City, Nfld., Thunder Bay, Ont., and High Level, Alta. – were projected to potentially reach “Calgary-esque levels of size and influence by the year 2000,” journalist Tristin Hopper wrote in the National Post earlier this month.
Rouyn-Noranda, Que., was highlighted as a sixth “possible major growth centre” on a 1967 map drawn up as part of the MCDC proposal.
Writing in The Walrus magazine earlier this year, Brian Busby further touched on the vital role Flin Flon played in the plan. Had the proposal been implemented, he wrote, “freeways would link Flin Flon and Fort McMurray” today.
Indeed the 1967 map of the MCDC included a thick, slightly curved line stretching from Thunder Bay to Whitehorse. Flin Flon is among the communities along the path of what the map referred to as a “possible [extension] to existing transportation routes.”
Given that the MCDC plan’s “possible major growth centres” today have a combined population of 191,234 – hardly “Calgary-esque” – it can be easy to dismiss Rohmer’s idea as an absurd relic of a bygone age.
But as Hopper wrote in the Post, the proposal carried enough legitimacy in its day to garner the attention of “a who’s who of powerful Canadians,” including bank CEOs, scientists, labour and aboriginal leaders, and the patronage of former prime minister Lester Pearson.
The plan prompted fact-finding trips, a conference for deep-pocketed members and field surveys “all across the Canadian North,” Hopper noted.
Rohmer was even given the opportunity to present his idea to then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau. While Trudeau famously advocated “a just society,” he apparently had no interest in advancing the Canadian North with the $4 billion to $5 billion (according to Hopper) the proposal would have required.
Rohmer, a lawyer, author and celebrated Second World War veteran, was not a lobbyist by trade. As Hopper recounts, Rohmer conceived of the MCDC after becoming fascinated by a map of Canada – specifically the largely uninhabited northern strip of boreal forest stretching from coast to coast.
Canada had taken on major challenges before and succeeded. Why not develop, modernize and unite this resource-rich slice of the country? With Rohmer as the chieftain, a movement was born.
In 1968, Rohmer and a group of like-minded individuals formed the Mid-Canada Development Corridor Foundation, which worked to advance the ambitious proposal.
In a 2010 article for Up Here magazine, Hopper painted this picture of Rohmer’s vision: “Railways would have linked Northern mines to Ontario manufacturers. Electrical lines would have plugged the territories into the North American power grid. Millions of rich, multi-ethnic Canadians would live in a string of planned, ultra-modern Northern cities.”
This would have been accomplished in part by having governments play a strong role in encouraging investment in resources and developing its own plans for resources rather than relying on the private sector.
While MCDC was pitched in part as a national-unity project, it has failed to unify Rohmer and his skeptics.
“Rohmer never did provide much of a reason for the massive undertaking beyond poor predictions of population growth,” wrote Busby in The Walrus, noting that Rohmer projected a Canadian population of 50 million by 2016 – 30 per cent lower than the actual tally of 35.16 million.
Others point out that despite years of promising predictions for the Canadian North – that its resources would spark massive wealth and a population explosion – the region never quite seems to “get there.”
“It gets there,” Rohmer said in response to that argument, “but it needs a lot of help from time to time, that’s for sure.”
John van Nostrand agrees. In 2014, the architect and urban planner penned “If We Build It, They Will Stay,” a 3,200-word call to arms in favour of the MCDC. It was published in The Walrus.
“If the federal government had bought into Richard Rohmer’s vision from the start, the mid-Canada corridor would look very different today, beginning with infrastructure,” wrote van Nostrand. “Fifty years ago, it was still a government responsibility and, to a degree, priority. Now, it seems, there isn’t a government at any level that has the money for it. Infrastructure is incredibly expensive, and without a commercial imperative, a difficult sell.”
Van Nostrand argued the MCDC proposal would mark a departure from the practice of “extracting resources and [then] leaving” and “could populate the mid-Canada corridor – and create a bigger, better country.”
Despite such advocacy, there are no indications anyone within government today is interested in reviving the MCDC proposal. Still, Rohmer hasn’t lost hope.
“I’m still optimistic even at this late stage that something can occur whereby the Government of Canada will take the lead in bringing together the provinces and their own resources to create a long-range policy and plan for the future orderly development of Mid-Canada, the boreal forest,” he said. “It’s a habitable area on a planet that hasn’t that much left to really develop, and really do it carefully with regard to the environment and everything else that’s going on. So we have a great asset.”