Rural residents, gov’t need to adopt positive attitudes

Instead of looking at what they don’t have, rural communities should look 
at advantages and opportunities to change things for the better, says report

BLYTH, Ont. — Canada’s rural communities should be viewed as a reservoir of untapped potential, according the speaker who opened the Rural Talks to Rural conference here Sept. 28.

“Despite what they may think in Toronto, the world does not revolve just around Toronto. Rural Canada makes an important contribution,” Al Lauzon of Ontario’s University of Guelph said.

According to the 2015 report, the State of Rural Canada, written by Lauzon and others attached to School of Environment Design and Rural Development, “rural Canada has, is and will continue to be viable and vital to Canada…. The bulk of the dollar value of our international trade is from the export of natural resources, and those natural resources are almost entirely produced in non-metropolitan Canada.”

Much of today’s urban population is unaware of the diverse nature of rural Canada and how it has evolved, Lauzon said.

In agriculture, farmers have an important role but are often no longer central to local economies, he said. There are fewer farm families and much of the wealth generated by primary agriculture goes elsewhere.

Manufacturing has also been in sharp decline, and forestry creates relatively few jobs.

Declining population is an overriding concern, he said. So is limited access to services in such areas as health and education and the deterioration of basic infrastructure like roads and bridges.

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Lauzon said child mortality is higher in rural Canada, life expectancy is shorter, rates of obesity and suicide are higher, substance abuse more common and more rural seniors suffer from chronic disease than in other parts of Canada.

It’s time for a change in attitude, Lauzon said, within government circles and within rural communities themselves.

“We need to talk less about what we’re losing and more about what we can do.”

Lauzon pointed to Quebec as a model. The government there has invested in its rural areas where economic growth has outstripped that of Montreal in recent years.

The study makes several recommendations:

  • develop a long-term vision for rural Canada
  • support investments in innovation for small and medium-size businesses
  • maintain and invest in rural services and infrastructure
  • encourage a culture of collaboration among rural communities, including aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities
  • encourage new immigrants to Canada to consider rural communities as the place to build their lives

A tool being employed in Huron County where the conference was hosted encourages rural leaders to look at their communities in a new light, according to Jim Ginn, mayor of Central Huron.

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He said the process isn’t prescriptive but offers people a forum in which they can ask questions and share ideas.

Through the Healthy Rural Lens process, participants examine different aspects of their communities, including economic drivers, the natural environment, services, heritage, downtown development and transportation, with the idea of finding ways to enhance and build on what’s already there.

During the discussion, speakers pointed to positive developments in several locations.

Lauzon spoke of the $4 million investment in the Blyth Centre for the Arts, street improvements in the hamlet and the launch of Cowbell Brewing Inc., which is expected to create more than 100 jobs.

Wayne Caldwell, a professor of rural planning at the University of Guelph, talked Goderich’s re-sponse to the 2011 tornado that struck the town’s downtown core. He noted how investments in the hamlet of Brussels led to the redevelopment of the entire main street and in the town of Kincardine where the focus on community living services and downtown revitalization is attracting newcomers.

Dan Mathieson, mayor of Stratford, said his small city has benefitted from a long-term investment that began in 1999 when more than 80 kilometres of fibre optic cable with 300 access points began to be installed. It made the city one of the most connected in the world.

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The multimillion-dollar investment has given young people a reason to build their future in Stratford and has helped attract investments, small and large, including the Stratford Campus of the University of Waterloo and the Royal Bank of Canada’s national data centre, which generates $1.5 million in annual revenue for the city and employs 90, he said.