Digital infrastructure stressed at finance committee hearing

Better rural broadband and income tax changes are among requests made of the federal standing committee on finance by farm leaders in Regina.

The committee was on the western leg of its annual pre-budget consultations.

Ray Orb, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, and Norm Hall, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, both told the committee that digital infrastructure is as important as good roads and bridges.

“We need reliable access to broadband internet to conduct our daily business transactions,” Orb said.

“Without a reliable connection, it’s difficult to participate in the Canadian economy.”

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Hall said proximity to markets and access to services has always been a major issue. He pointed to safety concerns over the lack of cell coverage.

“Our rural Saskatchewan is getting more and more rural,” he said.

Orb, who is also chair of the rural forum at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said Ottawa should reconsider its definition of rural when it comes to the New Building Canada Fund.

Current programs consider rural to be anything under a population of 100,000.

“That puts us in the same pool as everything except Saskatoon and Regina,” he said. “We can’t compete.”

Only two rural municipalities qualified for funding in the first round of applications for infrastructure money because of this. SARM wants the threshold to be 4,999 in Saskatchewan so that small urban and rural municipalities are eligible.

Waste water, water and transit projects are all important but rural areas can’t be left out, he said.

“So we’re asking for a rural infrastructure fund to be created,” he said.

Hall said the 2017 budget is an opportunity for Ottawa to address key challenges in agriculture such as generational change.

APAS wants changes to the definition of family under the income tax act to make farm transfer easier.

“Over $50 billion in farm assets is to be transferred within the next decade,” he said.

While 95 percent of farms are still family farms, they can’t all be passed on easily.

“The income Tax Act is very specific on the definition of family. It doesn’t include nephews and nieces or cousins when someone’s selling,” Hall said. “What we want to see is an expansion of the definition of family just so that it can be passed on equally to my son and my nephew.”

Brampton East Liberal MP Raj Grewal asked how a change like that would affect the government treasury and other small businesses.

“I could not agree with you more; we want to keep these businesses small,” he said. “There’s a certain pride in owning your own farm, but how many are truly small in the sense that they’re making less than $5 million a year?”

Committee chair Wayne Easter said the committee has received 472 briefs from various Canadian stakeholders who want input and will hear directly from about 150 witnesses before submitting its findings to the finance minister.

He said several themes have emerged so far. One of the key ones is the need for economic stimulus.

“In fairness to the people who presented, there was considerable concern expressed about the time it took to roll out the federal infrastructure money,” he said of the New Building Canada program.

The money didn’t flow at the beginning of the construction season, he said, but the problem should be solved for next year.

“I’m almost afraid to add up the requests for money at every stop,” Easter said, noting that most have kept their asks to money for projects that will stimulate the economy and development.

Contact karen.briere@producer.com

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