It was a hot, humid day near Saskatoon last summer when I noticed a man helping out at the ticket booth at the inaugural Ag in Motion outdoor farm show.
This man was sporting a big, bushy white beard and wearing bib overalls, thrusting his hands deep into those pockets as he rocked back and forth on his heels. He matched the stereotype of the “dusty ol’ farmer” Murray McLaughlin made famous in his 1970s ballad.
I’m not proud of this, but I thought “redneck.”
That image changed for me when he weighed in on a conversation about the number of newcomers from different parts of the world making their way to Canada.
“All of us came from someplace,” he said, noting his grandparents immigrated from Sweden as homesteaders.
I have to admit, I didn’t expect to hear someone who looked like him, say something like that, especially given the tone of the conversation taking place.
But his observation is one that bears repeating.
Perhaps it should even become the rallying cry for rural renewal in Canada in light of a newly released report about the declining state of our rural culture.
“The State of Rural Canada” was produced by 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.
It is a disturbing cross-country snapshot of current trends. One of its main conclusions is that rural Canada is running out of people as a result of government neglect of rural issues, crumbling infrastructure, the pressures of globalization, the continued exodus of young people in search of better opportunities and an aging population left behind.
“Fundamentally, we have forgotten how to reinvest in rural and small-town places, preferring instead to simply run down the capital invested by previous generations,” the report says.
But the report also offers an insightful and more hopeful glimpse of what could be its future.
It cites innovative thinking demonstrated by small towns trying to survive in the face of constrained resources, the economic and environmental importance of rural spaces, strong social networks, and diversity.
It notes the saying, if you know one rural community — you know one rural community. “There is no single rural Canada, only the many manifestations of rural Canada and this makes rural policy development incredibly challenging.”
While historically, policy that was good for agriculture was also good for the rural economy, that correlation has diminished as the number of people employed in primary agriculture has declined.
The replacement rate of workers in non-metro Canada fell below 100 per cent in 2008. In metro Canada, it dropped below 100 per cent in 2013. That means an increasingly intense competition for labour at a time when rural Canada’s ability to compete is sagging.
Rural areas are also lagging in education and skills, with higher high school dropout rates and a lower average level of education. “Among the 34 OECD (Organization for Economic and Co-operative Development) countries Canada has the largest and hence, worst rural-urban gap with respect to levels of education in the workforce.”
The report suggests economic development may stem from working more closely with First Nations communities and working harder to attract new immigrants to rural areas.
“If rural Canada is to develop vibrant communities and economies then it must enhance its existing human capital, which means welcoming newcomers,” the report said.
That point is especially poignant at a time when the nightly news is filled with images of desperate people displaced by the atrocities of war, fleeing to countries that are already crowded and increasingly hostile.
Homesteading on the Canadian Prairies began two centuries ago with the arrival of the Selkirk settlers, also members of a displaced people. The people who already lived here were charitable. That didn’t work out so well for them in the end, and that perhaps explains why many of us are reluctant to extend a similar welcome now.
Amidst all of the complexities involved with supporting Canada’s First Nations as they build healthy communities and all of the complications involved with resettling displaced people — it is our own fear, suspicion, and misinformed assumptions that present the biggest hurdles.
These are people who will invest in their new communities. They buy businesses and fill houses that would otherwise remain vacant. They pay taxes. Their kids go to school, making it possible to improve the overall quality of education.
Perhaps the single, most important investment we can make in our rural communities is on a welcome mat. Our future depends on it.