Don’t ignore rural Prairie’s economic clout

I like to point out on a regular basis why rural Western Canada should not be ignored from investment, policy or economic points of view. Therefore, I greeted with interest a report providing perspectives on just these issues.

The Conference Board of Canada released The Economic Contribution of Alberta’s Rural Communities earlier this year. Unfortunately, the report evaluates conditions during the time between the censuses of 2001 and 2006, so it’s a bit dated. However, it still makes excellent points, most notably how important rural Alberta is to the province and the entire country.

The board has not prepared similar reports on Saskatchewan and Manitoba, but perhaps someone out there should ask it to do so.

Much is written about the falling populations of rural Canada, but generally, there are more people living there than 10 years ago; it’s just a smaller proportion of the population.

But that proportion is more than significant economically. It’s huge. As the conference board accurately notes, “rural Alberta’s contribution to Alberta’s and Canada’s economy is more than the sum of its GDP.”

No kidding. Nominal (not inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product in rural Alberta in 2006 was $39.2 billion, but its economic footprint in the province was $68.1 billion. The board estimates that “one dollar of economic activity in rural Alberta contributes to 74 cents of economic activity in the province’s urban centres.”

That’s a lot of support. And while rural GDP grows more slowly than urban GDP in Alberta, it was still chugging along at 2.5 percent annually between 2001 and 2006.

A large chunk of that — about 25 percent — would be attributable to Alberta’s oil and gas industry. But while oil and gas GDP fell 0.7 percent in that time, agriculture, forestry and fishing grew by 4.1 percent annually.

Meanwhile, rural Alberta contributes nearly $11 billion to the Canadian economy in direct economic activity. With indirect effects, the total contribution comes to $79 billion, says the board.

Rural Alberta faces its challenges, to be sure — an aging population, outmigration and consolidation — but it is also a massive part of the Albertan and Canadian economy.

This report, if inadvertently, supports my view that we ignore rural Western Canada, with its labour problems, infrastructure needs and investment requirements, at our economic peril.

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