A new report from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities hopes to convince Ottawa to revive the Rural Secretariat.
The chair of the national municipal lobby group’s rural forum says they hope the federal government can come to better understand the challenges and opportunities of rural Canada.
The FCM’s 28-page report Rural Challenges — National Opportunity: Shaping the future of rural Canada details the mounting challenges within rural communities but also the overall contribution of rural areas to the country’s prosperity.
They put it together to convince federal leaders to start seeing Canada’s rural regions through the eyes of those living there, said Ray Orb, FCM Rural Forum chair, and president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM).
Among key recommendations the report calls for a ‘rural lens’ for turning federal policy and program attention to rural Canada again.
“They need to step up to the plate and recognize us,” Orb said.
“We can prove what our contribution is. And we can also prove that we haven’t been getting our fair share.”
The report released May 22 cites many of the issues detailed in a report three years ago by the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation (CRRF) which depicts Canada’s rural regions facing both policy neglect, lack of investment and scarce fiscal resources to fix aging infrastructure.
This new report identifies the contributions rural communities continue to make despite those challenges, Orb said.
For example, it notes they continue to contribute 27 per cent towards Canada’s gross domestic product, as suppliers of water, energy and other resources.
And with “the right tools” they could be creating livable prosperous communities, the report says, noting that despite critical challenges — such as lack of high-speed broadband internet access being one — rural communities are in fact viewed as desirable places to live and do business.
Therein lies both the challenge and opportunity, or the question of who’ll be available for work.
Increasingly, it is ‘potential retirees’ choosing rural areas to live, and not ‘potential workers,’ the report notes, citing an influx of 40 per cent of those ready to quit working moving to rural areas between 2011 and 2016 — in contrast to 23 per cent outmigration of ‘potential workers’ in the same time frame.
The lag in population growth rurally is also putting many communities in a ‘fiscal squeeze’ as overall populations thin and disperse, making it harder for those still there to pay for community needs.
“When it comes to providing the infrastructure necessary to support a strong economy and high quality of life, rural governments are faced with two key problems,” Orb said.
“The challenge of serving dispersed communities and the limits of their fiscal and administrative capacity.”
Recommendations of the report include a federal commitment to expanding broadband internet access in rural, northern and remote communities and designing rural infrastructure programs to provide long-term predictable funding.
Orb said as small towns get smaller, the key will be working together to attract and share infrastructure investment.
“They have to recognize that there has to be regional co-operation, and sharing infrastructure, or sharing services,” he said, noting the report contains good examples of small communities that have become very viable doing so.
The report was released on the eve of a national conference in Halifax of municipal leaders and Orb said he was getting a lot of feedback as to the critical issues it identifies, and the expectations it raises.
Four out of five rural municipalities in Canada are members of the FCM.
Five years ago the FCM was strident in its disapproval of the decision to disband the Rural Secretariat by the former Conservative government, which said the focus would turn to programs and services to farmers and the agricultural industry.
Orb said FCM has been actively lobbying the Liberal rural caucus to revive the Rural Secretariat and was hopeful enough progress was made that it even expected to see it mentioned in the most recent federal budget.
“That wasn’t the case, but we’re still hopeful,” he said. “And we hope this report will be a kind of stepping zone to getting it back.”
Rural Challenges — National Opportunity cites examples of municipalities forging ahead with innovation.
A 90-minute drive southwest of Winnipeg, the community has grown by three to four per cent per year over the past 12 years, evolving into the industrial and commercial centre for southern Manitoba, with the municipality actively purchasing land for industrial development, providing business incubation space and increasing its stock of affordable housing. Municipal leaders also work with local businesses and an immigration consulting company to aggressively recruit skilled workers from abroad and support their applications to the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program. As a result, 29 per cent of residents in the most recent census were foreign born.
In May 2005, the Town of Baie-Saint-Paul became the first municipality in Quebec to adopt Local Agenda 21, a sustainable development strategy for the 21st century for responding to local issues while recognizing the value of the community’s cultural heritage. The plan incorporates the perspectives of community members, particularly young people and now prioritizes the inclusion of culture in land-use planning, and collaboration with local agricultural producers to preserve the local river basin and the region’s natural environment. Local Agenda 21 also promotes attractive streets and public spaces to enhance the appeal to tourists, businesses and new residents.