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Ontario's fabled cottage country of Muskoka has been shifted from the pastoral northern part of the province into the more populated southern section in an act of geographical revisionism by the Liberal government.

As a result, communities such as Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, Huntsville and Lake of Bays, along with their residents, no longer are eligible for the substantial financial benefits the provincial government provides to boost the economy of Northern Ontario.

Further, the residents, including summer cottagers, could face big increases in their property taxes.

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Coincidentally, the riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka is the northernmost constituency represented by a Progressive Conservative -- MPP Norm Miller -- and for 20 years was the fief of former premier Ernie Eves.

"It's mean spirited and it's partisan," Mr. Miller said about the move to take the southern half of his riding out of Northern Ontario.

The rewriting of the province's map means that the 10 ridings that remain entirely in Northern Ontario are eligible for bigger shares of the existing pot of money to promote development. Liberals hold seven of the 10, while the New Democratic Party has the other three.

Mr. Miller said the change has a big impact for the communities in the Muskoka half of his riding.

"There are a lot of community projects that the municipalities are able to participate in because they are in the north," he said.

"For example, the Town of Gravenhurst bought a fire truck with access to the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund money.

"The Town of Huntsville is in the middle of a big civic centre project.

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"In Gravenhurst, there is the big Muskoka wharf project which is very important for economic activity in the area."

While these projects "should not be affected," Mr. Miller said, the change in Muskoka's designation means plans for similar developments will be shelved.

"It limits what municipalities can do. It also affects property taxes. If they are paying for something like a fire truck or a road or a water system out of municipal dollars, it will mean higher property taxes as well."

The communities are highly dependent on summer residents. In Gravenhurst, the full-time population of 10,000 swells to 27,000 in the summer. Bracebridge grows to 23,000 from 13,000 people. And Huntsville explodes to 80,000 people living in the area at peak cottage and resort periods from 18,000.

Minister of Northern Development and Mines Rick Bartolucci pushed the change through. He is the MPP for Sudbury, one of the cities that will benefit from larger shares of the pot of northern money.

The change returns the boundary of Northern Ontario to what it was before September, 2000, when, with Mr. Eves as finance minister, it was shifted south to the Severn River, which incorporated all of his riding. Previously, it was the southern border of the municipality of Parry Sound.

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Laura Blondeau, communications assistant to Mr. Bartolucci, said the Liberals wanted to reverse this move. "The previous government, in the year 2000, added the district of Muskoka into the definition of Northern Ontario and the current government has switched that back," she said.

The pot available to help the north this year includes $135-million for community projects in the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, $285-million for northern highways and $10-million in the new Government of Ontario North Investor program, according to last week's budget.

The budget also promised to establish Northern Ontario Grow Bonds, which the province would guarantee and would provide loans to businesses in the north.

The change in the designation of Muskoka was set out in the budget, although it avoided using the word "Muskoka" lest residents discover they had been stripped of the benefits of living in Northern Ontario.

"We propose to return the definition of Northern Ontario, for the purposes of government policy and program delivery, to what it was before September, 2000," the government revealed in the last paragraph of page 96 of the budget papers.

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