Keeping the government sensitive to rural issues and finding policies that can help rural areas prosper is a constant struggle, concedes the designated rural representative in the Liberal minority government.
But Prince Edward Island MP and former solicitor general Wayne Easter, parliamentary secretary to the agriculture minister, promises to be an internal gadfly, keeping rural issues before a government that is shored up by a strong electoral base in urban Canada.
Easter said last week his goal is simple.
“I see my role as making sure that government policies don’t inadvertently hurt rural Canada and as much as possible help rural Canada,” he said. “Our strategy is that we want to do what we can to make rural Canada prosper so its kids will want to stay there.”
He said it involves lobbying inside government to make sure broader policies include rural Canada. An example is the government’s promise to turn five cents per litre of the federal gas tax over to municipalities for infrastructure investment within five years.
“That often is seen as the cities’ agenda, but I want to be sure it is a communities’ agenda and that smaller communities are included,” Easter said. “Any policy that is going to cabinet or being implemented, I want to make sure rural Canada is included.”
Public works minister Scott Brison’s plans to sell off federal assets and centralize government goods and services procurement to get better prices are a target for Easter, who sees both as a potential negative for rural areas.
Selling federal assets could remove a building or a service that often is the only face of the federal government in a rural community. Centralized purchasing could mean Ottawa does not spend in local communities to buy supplies.
“These are the kinds of things we need to be vigilant about, not policies aimed specifically at hurting rural Canada but policies that may hurt rural Canada without it being planned,” he said. “You can be sure I will be talking to Brison about these ideas.”
Easter also believes rural communities have the ability to help themselves. He has organized a series of rural workshops across the country that will end Oct. 22-23 with a national meeting in Red Deer.
He said he has learned about co-ordination efforts between French-speaking communities in Manitoba and Irish communities in Newfoundland to try to lure business, investment and services to their areas by presenting themselves as a larger interconnected community with several sites and shared needs.
“We all know that people are leaving rural communities, going to urban centres,” said Easter. “We’re trying to figure out strategies that will reverse that, that will keep our rural communities vibrant. That’s the bedrock.”