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Premier Dalton McGuinty speaks with Finance Minister Dwight Duncan during the Speech from the Throne at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on March 8, 2010. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)
Premier Dalton McGuinty speaks with Finance Minister Dwight Duncan during the Speech from the Throne at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on March 8, 2010. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)

Ontario stakes its recovery on education Add to ...

Ontario's road to economic recovery leads through the classroom, with a new strategy to turn education into an export industry.

The province plans to create another 20,000 spaces this year in its universities and colleges - and hopes to fill many of them by boosting enrolment of international students by 50 per cent over five years.

The classroom is the centrepiece of Premier Dalton McGuinty's five-year plan to return Canada's one-time economic engine to prosperity, unveiled in Monday's Speech from the Throne.

The global economic recession has left Ontario with a battered manufacturing heartland and a record deficit of $24.7-billion. Mr. McGuinty acknowledged that he is not sure when exactly the recession will "relax its grip" on the province.

The Throne Speech all but ignores the province's more pressing fiscal challenges, preferring instead to present an optimistic vision of the future.

It will be left to Finance Minister Dwight Duncan to handle the grim task of planning how to dig the province out of multiyear deficits when he presents the budget later this month.

But Mr. McGuinty suggested the province will go slow: "We don't want to compromise our future by moving to balance the budget too quickly," he told reporters after the speech.

"We don't want to risk the recovery by not investing in infrastructure stimulus this year."

He said he sees a successful future, one that will be built on the backs of a new generation trained for the highly skilled jobs that will supplant those on assembly lines. "We will, in our turn, do whatever it takes to secure a bright future for our children," he told reporters.

The five-year plan called Open Ontario begins with providing funding in the budget for the 20,000 new postsecondary spaces this year. Ontario hopes to emulate Australia, where international education ranks as the third-largest industry, Mr. McGuinty said.

At the same time, the province is launching a new Ontario Online Institute, which will allow students to take courses from a number of the province's colleges and universities without leaving home. It will be the first institution in Ontario that offers province-wide diplomas or degrees over the Internet.

Not only do the nearly 38,000 international postsecondary students already in Ontario help the economy - they spend $1-billion a year on such things as rent, groceries and clothing - they also give Ontarians an opportunity to better understand different cultures and the global economy, Mr. McGuinty said.

"Those international students who graduate can stay here and help us grow our economy, or go back [home]and work as a partner with us in the global economy," he said.

"Where others see a world that threatens," said the Throne Speech read by Lieutenant-Governor David Onley, "Ontarians see opportunity that beckons."

Mr. McGuinty's job creation plans also call for exploiting the untapped potential of the province's natural resources in the north. His government is encouraging development in the Ring of Fire, a mining exploration area in the James Bay Lowlands in Northern Ontario that might contain the world's largest chromite deposits.

The government is signalling that it is open to business just as pressure is growing to open up the northern wilderness. Fast-growing, emerging countries such as China and India are helping to drive up commodity prices, and that has led to unprecedented exploration in Ontario. The number of exploration claims in the Ring of Fire has more than doubled, to 8,200, over the past two years.

The Throne Speech flicks at the need to rein in rising costs for health care, which it says could consume 70 cents of every dollar spent on government programs within 12 years. The government also promises in the speech to introduce legislation that would force hospitals to compete for cash and pay executives based on how well their institutions perform.

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak criticized the government for devoting just 24 words in the Throne Speech to the province's fiscal woes, which he says are "mortgaging the future of our children and grandchildren."

"An out-of-gas and out-of-touch McGuinty is wedded to the same out-of-control spending," he said.

The Throne Speech says the government will not put the province's fragile economic recovery at risk by making deep cuts to program spending.

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