A newly released report paints a bleak picture of rural Canada — a rundown place that is neglected by governments and running out of people, despite its vital role and partnership with urban Canada.
The State of Rural Canada 2015, details the multiple and serious challenges facing rural regions including depopulation, aging infrastructure, lack of access to health care and education, and centralized decision-making.
These represent nothing less than the erosion of the foundation of both Canadian society and economy, the 103-page report, produced by the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation (CRRF) and the Rural Policy Learning Commons, an international network funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, says.
It’s a first-of-its-kind report intended to put the needs and issues of rural Canada in front of federal leaders with recommendations for advancing rural development across the entire country, says CRRF president Al Lauzon, a professor of rural development and environmental design at University of Guelph.
“I think rural is sometimes seen as irrelevant,” said Lauzon.
Rural Canada has increasingly taken a ‘back seat’ in federal policy development, and is viewed by policy-makers more as a series of sectors such as agriculture and forestry, he said.
Yet, this increasing focus on sectoral policy for key industries has led to the loss of capacity for understanding rural Canada. Fundamentally, we have lost a vision for rural Canada, he said, adding that policy-makers now also tend to have an urban bias, further clouding their ability to understand the interdependent needs and issues of rural Canadians.
The 2013 decision by the federal government to shut down the Rural Secretariat was a pivotal moment, revealing how senior governments have come to view non-urban areas, Lauzon said.
“It really speaks to how the government of the day was looking at rural,” he said. “They’ve lost what I would describe as a means to develop ground intelligence about what’s going on in rural communities.”
The elimination of the long-form mandatory census has been another blow to rural communities and organizations, reducing the data needed to inform decision-making and policy, the report says.
The report finds that rural Canada faces a mix of demographic, economic and social challenges including an aging population and a need to provide new development opportunities for younger workers. And while it has proven itself to be highly innovative, drawing on strong social ties, and doing more with less, it cannot continue to pursue community and economic development without supports.
“Government policy has to create what I would call enabling conditions for communities… to mobilize their resources and assets,” said Lauzon. That does, however, require more work on rural communities’ part too.
“They need to overcome what I would describe as regional animosity between communities, and find ways of working together,” he added.
The report provides detailed snapshots of individual provincial challenges and priorities.
Manitoba’s challenges, for example, include its uneven population growth, an aging population and workforce, and essential services at risk in places where populations are dropping.
Sectors driving this province’s rural economy have shifted from primary agriculture to wholesale and retail, manufacturing, health care, and natural resource development, the report says.
The report makes several key recommendations including developing a new and robust vision for rural Canada, increasing engagement by all rural Canadians themselves in the planning and reinvestment of their regions, and creation of a new relationship with Aboriginal communities.
In rural regions, partnerships between municipalities and Aboriginal communities can only increase opportunities in community development that will benefit from the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders, the report says.
An accompanying document, released Sept. 17 along with State of Rural Canada, includes questions Canadians who care about rural Canada are urged to ask federal leaders vying to form the next federal government, including, ‘what is your party’s perception of and vision for rural and Northern Canada?’ and, ‘how does your party plan to support sustainable rural development?’
“The authors in this report make it clear that there is nothing inevitable about rural decline. Where it is occurring, it is largely intentional by virtue of what we choose to do or not to do in our policy decision-making,” the report says.