A longtime rural resident, I use my 60 plus years of life learning to opinionate here and elsewhere on the “interweb” on everything from politics to environmental issues. A believer in reasonable discourse rather than unhelpful attacks I try to give positive input to the blogesphere, so feel free to comment upon rural issues or anything else posted here. But don’t be surprised if you comments get zapped if you are not polite in your replys.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Federal Role in Rural Sustainability

Recently I was made aware of a presentation by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities made to the Federal government about The Federal Role in Rural Sustainability. Its conclusions are very similar to those arrived at by the National Symposium on How to Build a Sustainable Rural Canada which was held in Edmonton, Alberta last July. Not really a surprise as they quote extensively from that report and from the Senate Report on Rural Poverty previous to that, which I have referred to in several posts here and elsewhere.

Here are a few extracts from this report most of which seems very familiar, I am pleased that the FCM, the Rural Secretariat and others are continuing to bring these issues to the governments attention, I doubt however if there will be great change in the attitude of those in power towards the Rural Minority but this must not stop us from making both the public and politicians aware of the need for change. (Please note that these extracts contain major snips in order to keep the article to a reasonable length)

The Executive summary sums it up thus….

1. Rural Canada needs a champion at the federal cabinet table to drive and sustain change and to integrate and co-ordinate the actions of various federal departments. (Read “A strong, knowledgeable and independent voice at the cabinet table” Can such an animal be found?)

2. Rural communities need enduring commitments— a long-term plan—from the Government of Canada to ensure that rural priorities receive the sustained resources and attention required to tackle problems with deep roots and to implement strategies with longtime horizons. (As do ALL municipalities)

3. A one-size-fits-all approach to rural policy-making will not work; solutions must be tailored for and responsive to the diversity of rural Canada. (I have said before this is probably the single most important statement, one size does indeed “not fit all”.)

4. The Government of Canada must ensure it provides the appropriate departmental structures, mandates and resources to support an enduring, horizontal, collaborative and well-resourced commitment to building and sustaining rural Canada, now and in the future. (Is that horizontal as in sleeping?)

5. The vision and strategy for rural sustainability must be developed across departmental silos and in partnership with all three orders of government, industry and community groups. (What the H is a departmental silo? Wish these folks would speak english!)

It goes on to say…..
The 2006 Census showed that rural Canada’s share of the national population fell below 20 per cent for the first time in our history, furthering a long decline. With shrinking tax bases, limited revenue sources and rapidly aging infrastructure, rural municipalities are struggling to provide the basic services and community facilities their communities need to attract and retain residents and businesses.

As with the previous reports it highlights the difficulty in defining exactly what “rural” really means ……..

Between 1921 and 1931, Canada’s urban population surpassed its rural population, and today some 25 million people—over 80 per cent of Canadians—live in urban areas. Ontario saw its urban population surpass its rural population nearly 100 years ago. Ontario today is only 13 per cent rural. Statistics Canada has sought to update its definition of urban and rural areas. It defines rural Canada as “areas located outside urban centres with a population of at least 10,000.”

I have tried to tackle that issue before and have now concluded that it is better defined by the level of services available than by the population level of the area alone, further that a regional area that includes urban centers can still be called rural when referring to economic development! A very difficult distinction and one that I will try and define better in future posts.

Why should rural Canada matter to Canadians?

In “Rural and Urban: Differences and Common Ground,” Bill Reimer provides an answer. He writes: “Rural and urban Canada are inextricably linked. Rural places provide timber , food, minerals, and energy that serve as bases of urban growth. Rural places also process urban pollution, refresh and restore urban populations, and maintain the heritage upon which much of our Canadian identity rests.”

The maintenance, care and stewardship of natural resources will continue to require a local presence, such as game and forest wardens. Local infrastructure, such as roads, harbours, airports, and power lines and stations, must be maintained. There will always be a tourist demand for the great outdoors and spectacular scenery, including everything from whale watching, hiking, hunting and fishing to cross- country skiing and snowmobile expeditions. Again, infrastructure must be maintained and services provided. Public services, such as public administration, policing, education and health care, must be provided for local populations. As populations age, health care will become increasingly important.

(Much of the rural area seems to be increasingly a “retirement” choice by former urban residents some of whom may expect a much higher level of services than we currently enjoy.)

The rural voice in Parliament has been fragmented by the strong sectoral organization of political agendas. Most of the rural challenges—such as those related to population decline, reorganization of property rights, poverty , services and local governance—are multi-sectoral in nature, especially as they are manifested in specific places. Building a strong local economy , for example, requires at least regional diversification. That potentially places the interests of agriculture and forestry, fishing and tourism, energy and environment, or mining and health in conflict, as they struggle to fulfill their mandates or even survive in difficult conditions.

(Many rural residents do not expect or even want the kind of income that the typical unionized worker receives, we choose to give a higher value to things other than the almighty dollar. However we still need basic services within our communities and do still have to have sufficient income for food and shelter AND transportation, working in distant urban areas is often a necessity, not a choice.)

The Rural Infrastructure Challenge
Canada’s thousands of rural municipalities face an array of formidable challenges, including the provision of adequate public infrastructure—roads, bridges, drinking water and public amenities. They do not have the financial capacity to meet these challenges, because of the revenue bases available to them and the level of services expected of them.
Rural areas play a critical role in building national wealth, but some of these communities are losing their capacity to foster economic activity and maintain quality of life.
Programs and strategies to reverse this trend must avoid a one-size-fits-all approach by recognizing rural communities’ unique challenges and opportunities. The absence of broadband Internet significantly impedes rural economic development. Communities without broadband access are denied competitive advantages, such as electronic delivery of health and education services, and the ability to gain access to markets. Without adequate communications infrastructure, the service delivery capacity of these communities is much weaker than that of fully serviced urban areas.

Although roads and bridges will do much to get people to rural communities, quality of life will ultimately influence their decision to stay. Inadequate infrastructure to support health service delivery is a serious impediment to economic development in rural Canada. People in rural communities face major barriers to receiving health care because of their remote locations and the shortage of health professionals.

Apart from the Goods and Services Tax Rebate and the permanent Gas Tax Fund, most federal funding programs have been short term and ad hoc. For rural communities to plan and build for sustained prosperity and growth, long-term funding must be protected and expanded.

(Put quite simply most rural folks do not want a hand out but a recognition that we contribute to the well being of all Canadians , not the least of which is by providing a relief from the pressures of the city to many families who chose to visit us and we cannot continue to pay for ever increasing service requirements [some mandated by upper levels of government] with an ever decreasing population.)

The Rural Secretariat
Against this backdrop, the Rural Secretariat at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada tries to promote a rural perspective. The secretariat’s stated purpose is to act as a “focal point for the Government of Canada to work in partnership with Canadians in rural and remote areas to build strong, dynamic communities.” With limited resources, the secretariat seeks to influence a wide array of policy issues and a multitude of government organizations large and small, as well as submissions that go to cabinet. It must compete with other departments, agencies and secretariats, all of which are trying to influence federal policy and decision-making processes.
The secretariat also has another important limitation— it has limited staff to influence the federal government’s policy and decision-making processes, and the numerous policy proposals coming before cabinet every month. In addition, 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.

Having only recently become aware of the Secretariat I cannot say how effective they are in bringing rural matters to the attention of government but I can thank them for bringing this report to my attention. Thanks again Steve!

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