“We feel that there should be a voice that speaks at the cabinet level very strongly about the issues that are undermining rural communities. We absolutely need a champion.”
– PAULINE QUINLAN, FCM BOARD MEMBER AND MAYOR OF BROMONT, QUEBEC
Anew report prepared by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities calls for a “political rural champion” at the federal cabinet table to help begin reversing this country’s decades-long rural crisis.
The 20-page report Wake Up Call: The National Vision and Voice We Need for Rural Canada, also says the existing Rural Secretariat housed with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada must be given more resources and a higher profile.
Rural Canada has been in crisis for decades, a crisis now exacerbated by the global economic turndown, the report says. It is blunt about why the federal government cannot and is not fixing it.
“The federal role in rural communities has been hamstrung by lack of co-ordination across federal departments, absence of long-term strategies and funding commitments and inadequate rural representation at the federal cabinet table,” the report says.
This is not a call to create a new cabinet position, said FCM board member and mayor of Bromont, Quebec, Pauline Quinlan as the report was released on Parliament Hill last week. Rather, an existing minister needs to have rural concerns designated as their key responsibility, she said.
The two federal ministers who currently have the Rural Secretariat under their mandate – Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz and Minister of State Jean-Pierre Blackburn – have too many other responsibilities, Quinlan said.
“If, for example, Minister Ritz or Minister Blackburn were given that specific responsibility, with less other dossiers to look at, we feel they could address our issues better,” she said.
“We feel that there should be a voice that speaks at the cabinet level very strongly about the issues that are undermining rural communities,” Quinlan said. “We absolutely need a champion.”
The problem isn’t that rural MPs, which outnumber urban MPs, aren’t doing their job to represent their constituencies, the report emphasizes. In fact, rural Canada is well represented politically, and “the political world is sensitive to rural issues,” it says. Rural MPs repeatedly raise concerns in caucus, parliamentary committees and in question period and national parties pay close attention to rural Canada.
The problem lies instead within “the machinery of government” where there is neither a sustained political voice, departmental structure nor well-resourced commitment to building and sustaining rural Canada.
“Things are different in the bureaucracy, where rural issues are not always heard,” the report notes. “As one observer said, ‘the federal civil service is an urban institution.’”
It is against this backdrop that the Rural Secretariat, tries to do its job, which is promote a rural perspective.
Wake Up Call’s other main recommendation is that the Rural Secretariat be given a higher profile and more resources.
Presently, the secretariat’s staff amounts to 100 person years spread over six regional offices plus one head office in Ottawa, the report observes. It also must compete with other departments, agencies and secretariats since it does not have direct access to a senior minister.
“The secretariat resides within Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and must, at times, compete with its parent department for time to brief the minister before cabinet meetings, since it does not have direct access,” the report states.
The report says rural Canada has “outgrown the department” but goes on to say Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada remains the closest of any federal department to rural affairs.
The FCM was prompted to write the report after the 2006 Census which showed that rural Canada’s share of the national population fell below 20 per cent for the first time in history, and that rural communities are attracting less than five per cent of the country’s new immigrants. Compared to the rest of the country, household incomes in rural Canada are now lower than average, lifespans are shorter, and chronic poverty is more common. With shrinking property tax bases, rural communities struggle to provide the basic infrastructure and services they need.
FIGHTING FOR FUTURE
This, despite the fact that rural industries such as agriculture, forestry, fishing and natural resources account for over 50 per cent of national exports, said Basil Stewart, FCM first vice-president and mayor of Summerside, P. E. I. in a media statement.
“Rural Canada is fighting for its future,” he said. “Industries rooted in rural regions produce over 50 per cent of Canada’s exports, but a lot of rural Canada is missing out on the growth and prosperity that it does so much to create.”
A new champion would put rural issues on the agenda in Ottawa, Stewart said.
“We need a national plan to help rural communities diversify their local economies so they are less vulnerable to the boom-and-bust cycles of global markets. We need a plan that delivers sustained funding support so rural communities can provide the public services and infrastructure they need to attract and retain new residents and businesses.”
The proposal has the support of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. Last September Laurent Pellerin, first vice-president of the CFA together with Jean Perrault, president of FCM sent a joint letter to all party leaders asking them to endorse a four-point plan that also included a call for strengthening the Rural Secretariat and appointment of a cabinet champion for rural issues.
That letter also called for the development and release of a national vision for rural and agricultural economic vitality within one year, dedicated funding for rural communities, and revival of the National Outlook agricultural conference.