Should Sask. scrap some rural roads?

Report on rural communities recommends reducing municipal governments and abandoning some rural roads

A new report on the health of Canada’s rural communities says Saskatchewan should reduce the number of municipal governments in the province and rationalize its vast network of rural roads.

Those measures, combined with the adoption of new technologies that improve rural communication, promote entrepreneurship and enhance the delivery of health care and education, will benefit rural communities in the province.

“Some real or de facto municipal government amalgamation is long overdue (in Saskatchewan),” says the State of Rural Canada Report, released Sept. 17 by the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation.

“The (province’s) vast rural road network must be rationalized through upgrading some roads and abandoning others,” it adds.

The Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation (CRRF) consists of rural leaders, policy makers and academics who specialize in the study of rural issues.

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The State of Rural Canada Report is a 114-page document touching on key issues that affect rural communities across Canada.

It contains three overarching recommendations:

  • A renewed focus on rural issues and policy development mechanisms by provincial, territorial and federal governments.
  • New initiatives that allow rural communities to participate in shaping their own futures.
  • Corrective steps aimed at healing the “historical trauma” suffered by aboriginal people.

In Saskatchewan, the report’s position on municipal amalgamations and rural roads is likely to generate dissent.

According to the document, Saskatchewan has more incorporated municipal governments per capita than any other province — a total of 781 local councils including RMs, cities, towns, villages and resort communities.

Together, those municipalities serve a provincial population of slightly more than one million people.

That’s a ratio of one municipal government for every 1,323 residents. By comparison, Ontario has one municipal government for every 28,800 residents.

Rose Olfert, one of two University of Saskatchewan academics who helped write the report, said rural residents in Saskatchewan are generally opposed to the concept of municipal amalgamation.

But she argued that larger regional governments that serve more people would be less costly to operate, more efficient in terms of service delivery and better equipped to initiate large scale projects, which are often beyond the reach of smaller municipal units.

“It seems likely that there would be more opportunities to reduce the cost of government if we had fewer municipalities,” said Olfert, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

“We would all like our own local government, very close to us so we know who they are, we can see them and we can bring our problems to them and expect them to act.

“But on the other hand, if we have so many local governments, it becomes harder for them to get together to do some of the things that you really do need a much larger population for … whether it’s a regional waste disposal or water treatment plant …. “

Olfert said smaller government units tend to present logistical and political obstacles that make regional co-operation more difficult.

“With so many local governments and so many interests, that co-operation can be logistically difficult and extremely time consuming,” she said.

Ray Orb, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, offered a different view.

He said the problems created by rural amalgamations often outweigh the purported benefits.

In Saskatchewan, there are programs in place to accommodate co-operation between municipalities, he added.

“When you look across the country … there’s not a really good track record out there for forced amalgamation,” Orb said.

“In some cases, it’s created a lot of confusion and I think some hardships among municipal councils and their ratepayers.”

Orb also took issue with the notion that Saskatchewan’s road system should be rationalized.

“We’ve got a road system in place that we really need, that’s really vital, especially to the ag industry.”Orb said rural councils have a good sense of which roads are under used and require less maintenance.

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