Economy, history make rural Canada worth saving

A recent report on the state of rural Canada should give us all a lot to think about and we must not allow it to fade quietly.

It contains arguments, policies and suggestions for rural development, which, at the very least, deserve a thorough airing.

There are challenges that rural Canada is going to have to come to terms with. Changing demographics, changing global economic patterns that have forced rural communities to compete worldwide and new realities brought on by environmental changes such as global warming initiatives are reverberating now.

The report cites ongoing stress points such as lack of labour and sharing wealth and opportunities with First Nations people as key questions to our future in rural Canada.

In Alberta, the authors stressed the need to diversify to end the boom-bust cycle of oil and gas development. They said agriculture has long been the mainstay of rural life, but a more holistic approach is needed, which means rural development policy must become more than an agriculture policy.

Recommendations for Saskatchewan talk about the extensive network of rural governments. There are 297 rural municipalities in Saskatchewan, many too small to make attractive economic zones, despite co-operation programs that exist.

However, any final decision on amalgamation must be left to the municipal governments and residents.

Across all regions and recommendations in the report, one point stood out.

The authors stressed that the residents of rural communities must be directly involved in the decision making process and their acceptance of change is essential.

Rural governments should be encouraged to amalgamate where it makes sense, but people in those areas should control their own destinies.

The report also mentioned rationalizing the Saskatchewan road network.

There is likely room for some roads to be decommissioned, but a good road network serves as a welcome mat, a message that the province is putting up the resources and the capital it needs to provide good service to prospective rural residents and businesses.

For Manitoba, the recommendations emphasized the diverse nature of its demographics and differences between communities in different regions. It suggests a greater role for the provincial government while helping communities develop their own long-term visions.

The report gives us much to discuss, which is exactly what we must do next, because we cannot afford to continue along the recent path in which rural development issues are left to look after themselves.

In addition to farming, rural areas are the engine for mining, forestry and other resource development. Rural regions have a much greater role to play on the national stage than what rural population numbers suggest.

Yet there is a greater game afoot here, too. An entire rural way of life, culture, history and traditions may depend on how we respond to the changes ahead.

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