Infrastructure funding among key issues at rural leaders meeting

Canadian municipal leaders descended on the nation’s capital in early June for the annual Federation of Canadian Municipalities meeting — a national gathering that gives mayors and councillors a chance to discuss the latest challenges facing their communities.

More than 1,900 officials came this year, with delegates invited to attend workshops, political speeches and participate in various study tours, including a couple of day-trips to farms.

The gathering is mainstay on the political calendar, with representatives from Canada’s four federal parties (Liberals, Conservatives, NDP and Greens) invited to give speeches.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, NDP interim leader Tom Mulcair and Green Party leader Elizabeth May all spoke on behalf of their parties. Conservative finance critic Gerard Deltell represented the Conservatives.

Ottawa’s national infrastructure bank idea, the federal government’s decision to shut down its offices in Vegreville, Alta., the ongoing softwood lumber dispute with the United States and the escalating opioid crisis all made the agenda.

The Liberals want to create a $35 billion infrastructure bank. If created, it would support large projects mostly owned and operated by the private sector, who would be given more control than is typically seen in traditional infrastructure partnerships.

The idea has been heavily criticized by both the Conservatives and the NDP. The Conservatives insist the bank benefits larger municipalities at the expense of smaller communities. Mulcair told delegates that the NDP think the idea is a “huge mistake.” The plan also faces opposition from the Senate.

The prime minister has insisted the bank is voluntary, with 90 percent of infrastructure projects likely to be funded via grants.

Ottawa is also planning a Smart Cities Challenge next fall, aimed at encouraging municipalities to dream.

The competition, which will have three separate editions, includes a $50 million prize for first place and two $10 million prizes.

A separate $5 million prize specifically for rural communities will also be set aside, with another $5 million earmarked for a project in an indigenous community.

Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities President Ray Orb, who also serves as chair of FCM’s Rural Caucus, said rural municipalities are hoping Ottawa will let them band together to propose regional projects for the infrastructure bank’s consideration.

Rural internet access was another infrastructure issue raised at the FCM meeting. Murray Jones, mayor of Douro-Drummer, Ont., spoke to delegates about how his township helped secure high speed internet access for 90 percent of Eastern Ontario.

Ottawa recently announced new measures to ensure competitive and reliable internet service for all Canadians, including rural communities.

Infrastructure wasn’t the only hot-topic issue raised at the annual FCM meeting.

Ottawa’s decision to close the Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Case Processing Centre in Vegreville, Alta., has triggered sharp rebuke. The Liberals want to move the centre to Edmonton, which local officials say will cost Vegreville more than 200 jobs.

A motion presented to FCM delegates by the Town of Vegreville calls on Ottawa “to establish clear performance criteria for federal facilities” and that a business case complete with an economic analysis be submitted before any relocation decision is passed.

For rural leaders, one other pressing question kept creeping into conversations over the course of the meeting. How to make Ottawa and the provinces listen?

Sometimes rural leaders need to “raise a little hell,” one mayor suggested if they’re to compete with larger municipalities.

Jones agreed. “Step one: you need someone who is willing to listen to you,” he said. Otherwise, projects won’t get off the ground.

“Get over it. Life does exist outside of city limits. Please, listen to us.”

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