Northern Ontario’s Deep Routes

Homegrown CEO Corina Moore is setting Ontario Northland back on track after divestment threatened to sever its links to integral rural communities

For a place so wild, cold, and remote, Northern Ontario is remarkably warm. Not in the sunny sense of the word—its climate is decidedly more “tundra” than “tropical”—but rather in the sentimental sense: In direct contrast to its geography, its people are hospitable, open, and inviting. Serious, but not at all severe.

114

Age of Ontario Northland, which was established in 1902

700

Miles of track constituting Ontario Northland Railway

25

Number of diesel locomotives currently owned by Ontario Northland

320K

Annual ridership on Ontario Northland’s passenger trains

$209M

Ontario Northland’s estimated total economic impact in Northeastern Ontario

750

Ontario Northland employees

That’s why Corina Moore loves it so much. “Life in Northern Ontario is pretty simple,” says Moore, who is president and CEO of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission, the provincial agency in charge of rail and bus transit in Northern Ontario. “It’s all about family and balance here. We work hard, but we also play hard.”

While many Canadians see the North as the end of the Earth, to Moore it’s the beginning. Consider, for example, one of the region’s larger cities, North Bay, where Ontario Northland is based. Although it’s 330 kilometers north of Toronto, it’s also the southern terminus of the Ontario Northland Railway. Therefore, what appears at first to be an exit from civilization is actually an entrance to a prospering economy.

That economy thrives because of its location, not in spite of it. “When the rail line made its way north from North Bay, Northern Ontario was connected to the rest of the world,” explains Moore, who says the railroad gave Northerners the means to discover and transport valuable natural resources with which to support jobs, families, and municipalities. “We are the reason those communities started, existed, and flourished, and we continue to be vital to their sustainability today.”

To ensure that both the agency and the region continue to thrive for generations to come, Moore is leading the former through one of the most significant transformations in its history. The result, she says, will be a strong and renewed Ontario Northland.

Northern Blood

Born and raised in a village of just 25 people, Moore has fond memories of growing up in Northern Ontario. However, she always wanted to explore the world and experience business life in southern latitudes.

“My dream was to leave the North to go run a big global company somewhere else,” says Moore, who studied systems design engineering and business administration and management at the University of Waterloo. “I felt like I had something I needed to do in the South, and when I left I’m not sure I thought I was ever coming back.”

For many years, it seemed as though she never would. “For 10 to 15 years, I basically lived out of a suitcase while I learned the business world,” says Moore, who spent her early career traveling the globe for her job in the business automation sector, where she worked before ultimately transitioning to telecommunications. “I moved into wireless technology, and then life slowed down a bit. At that point, I settled down and started my family in Waterloo.”

Upon becoming a mother, Moore heard the North calling her name. “My husband and I decided it was time to move back to the North because we wanted to raise our family here,” she says. “So I picked up the phone and cold called the leader of the largest telecommunications business I knew of in North Bay, which was Ontera, a division of Ontario Northland [that was divested in October 2014]. I said, ‘Here’s my background and here’s my situation. I would love to come be part of the North again and help you grow your business.’ I met with him a few weeks later and started at Ontario Northland a few months after that.”

Like a boomerang, Moore had left the North only to come faithfully back again. When she did, she saw Northern Ontario with new eyes.

“I didn’t see the North for what it really was until I’d been away for some years. Then I understood,” she says. “It was an amazing opportunity to be able to come back, be close to my family, and raise my children in a wonderful part of the world while being part of a really great organization.”

A Second Chance

After a decade at Ontario Northland, during which time she worked in numerous divisions within the organization—including not only telecommunications, but also risk management, human resources, and operations—Moore became president and CEO in August 2015, having served as interim president and CEO for almost a year. Her tenure marks a new “second chance” era for the 113-year-old agency, which the provincial government began divesting to be sold in 2012 because of increased operating costs and stagnant ridership, only to reverse its decision in 2014.

TRACKS TO THE FUTURE

Ontario Northland narrowly averted sale by the provincial government in 2014. To secure its future, the agency is focusing on these five key areas.

  • Maintaining its social mandate supporting the communities and economy of Northern Ontario through rail and motor coach transportation services.
  • Diversifying its portfolio by extending internal rail repair services to external customers.
  • Continually improving processes to make them more flexible and adaptable to market demands.
  • Managing stakeholder relationships to ensure all community, employee, business, and government needs are met.
  • Empowering employees to take ownership of the business and become agents of change within it.

“We’ve been through a lot as an organization,” Moore says. “Going through two years of divestment and coming out on the other side is no small task. But when you get a bunch of really passionate Northerners together who really believe in something, anything is possible.”

Because it ultimately is what saved Ontario Northland, Moore is doubling down on the agency’s social mandate. “I don’t think that the value rail infrastructure provides to a country can be overstated,” she says. “Our passenger train connecting Moosonee and Cochrane, the Polar Bear Express, is the only link to the people of the James Bay Coast; it’s vital and important to tens of thousands of passengers every year. Rail also provides a safe way to transfer minerals and forestry products; takes trucks off the road, which saves the government costs associated with road maintenance; attracts major industry to Northern Ontario; and indirectly supports local businesses through payroll and goods and services bought in the places we operate. Because it’s so vast, Canada needs strong communities outside its urban centers in order to remain strong and stable; we support those communities by bringing an economy to Northern Ontario.”

One of Moore’s biggest priorities is expanding the agency’s business.

“You can’t have all your eggs in one basket, and that’s where we’ve found ourselves. So, our focus right now is transforming in order to diversify our portfolio,” Moore says. She’s leading the charge by helping Ontario Northland leverage its internal expertise—refurbishing, remanufacturing, and repairing rail cars—for external customers. “Because we’ve been supporting our own railway for over a century, we already have the shop facilities and we already have the skillset. Doing for others what we already do for ourselves allows us to bring in more revenue while still creating great, skilled jobs that support the communities we’re a part of.”

Change isn’t easy. It is, however, necessary. “Transformation right now is about understanding our internal processes and adapting them to support external customer requirements,” Moore says. “We’re not changing the core values of Ontario Northland and the really rich importance that we have in Northern Ontario; we’re making ourselves more adaptable so we can react quickly to new opportunities.”

And, in so doing, ensure a long and prosperous future for Northern Ontario. “We’ve been here for over 100 years, and my vision is to create a sustainable organization that will be here for 100 more,” Moore says. “I have three children, and I’d love for them to be able to go explore the world like I did—and then have a really strong organization to welcome them back to Northern Ontario, like I did. If we could create that for our employees and their children and grandchildren, that to me would be the best of all worlds.”