Agriculture, agribusiness and other rural-based resource sectors are driving over half of Canada’s exports and fueling economic growth, but much of rural Canada is missing out on that growth, Canada’s municipalities warn.
In a report released Tuesday, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Rural Forum urged the federal government to craft a longer-term rural strategy and place more emphasis on rural development at the federal cabinet level.
FCM first vice-president Basil Stewart noted in a statement that rural Canada´s share of the national population, according to the 2006 census, dropped below 20 per cent for the first time in history, and rural communities now draw fewer than five per cent of the country´s new immigrants.
Household incomes in rural areas “are lower than the national average, and chronic poverty and health problems are more common,” said Stewart, who’s also the mayor of Summerside, P.E.I. “As their tax base shrinks, rural communities are struggling to provide basic infrastructure and services.”
“It’s hard to get attention for a quiet crisis, apart from occasional news stories when the last mill closes in a one-industry town,” the report says.
“Events like the mountain pine beetle infestation, the devastation of the beef industry by mad cow disease or the closing of fisheries on both coasts are treated as discrete stories that slowly fade from public awareness. The rural element in these events is often overlooked, although of course most of the people affected live in rural Canada.”
In reaction to the current global economic crunch, the federal government’s stimulus plan includes billions of dollars in short-term funding assistance for rural communities, Stewart noted.
“But as we emerge from the global economic crisis, the country needs a long-term vision for rural Canada, and long-term federal funding commitments to support that vision.”
Such a plan, he said, must deliver “sustained funding support so rural communities can provide the public services and infrastructure they need to attract and retain new residents and businesses.”
It’s been argued, the report notes, that rural Canada is “a drag on the national economy and on urban areas, and that market forces and outmigration should be allowed to solve the problem.” One national newspaper columnist, the report said, wrote that the 2006 census showed rural Canada has become “so irrelevant demographically that it increasingly exists only in myth.”
But despite growing urbanization, the report says, “a strong national economy needs all regions functioning well to operate efficiently.”
Given Canada’s economic reliance on its natural resources, both the traditional and upcoming drivers such as wind and hydroelectric power and biofuels, rural Canada “will not disappear (but) a chronically weak and underperforming rural Canada is not good for those who live there or for the national economy and urban Canada.
“Balance is needed in economic development, which calls for public policies that can accommodate both rural and urban areas.”
Rural Canada, Stewart noted, is well-represented in the House of Commons, and the federal government “has never abandoned rural Canada to market forces. Individual federal policies and programs deliver clear benefits.”
However, he added, “successive federal governments have been unable to turn these policies into a sustained and integrated plan to strengthen rural communities. The government has struggled to keep rural issues on the political agenda, and to implement strategies effectively over time and across federal departments.”
The government’s Rural Secretariat, formed in 1998 within Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, was meant to cut across departments and support horizontal policies to strengthen rural communities. The Secretariat, Stewart said, “needs more resources and a stronger link to the federal cabinet.”
The FCM’s report also calls for the appointment of a “rural champion within (the federal) cabinet to keep that plan on the political agenda and on track within the government.”
As well, it asks the government to provide the Rural Secretariat with “adequate resources and more influence on government priorities.”
In a separate release, Nova Scotia Liberal MP Mark Eyking, chair of the party’s rural caucus, said the party agrees with the FCM on the importance of having a long-term strategy for rural Canada in “laying the groundwork to a prosperous post-recession future.”
The current government, he said, “has left us with a flawed softwood lumber deal, a threatened lobster fishery and farmers struggling to keep their generations-old operations alive. We need to work on ways of making the rural economy strong and, most importantly, sustainable for the generations to come.”