One of the notable shifts that COVID-19 has produced in Canada is an increased desire for greater living space and the specific phenomenon of knowledge economy workers moving out of large urban centers and towards more suburban and rural communities. Though it is too soon to know if the shifts created by the pandemic will be merely transitory or longer-lived as case numbers decline and offices start to reopen, there have been clear consequences, both positive and negative, of this shift.
On the negative side, the influx of urban expats has been blamed for an increase in housing prices in communities which were previously relatively affordable. There are also concerns about the ability of service delivery standards in rural communities to keep up with the demands of new residents. Warnings about, for example, the scant availability of family doctors in New Brunswick have been emerging from those who did make the shift to smaller towns. At the same time, an injection of new residents is just what many smaller communities, which have been worried for years about population decline and the increasing concentration of economic opportunity into big cities, have been asking for. New arrivals might also create more pressure for policymakers to act on long-standing concerns of these areas, such as affordable internet access and dealing with the unique effects of climate change on rural areas.
In short, after suffering for many years with the issue of a shrinking population and economic base, some rural communities are now encountering a new set of problems fueled by too-rapid, unplanned growth. To be sure, this problem may be a relatively better one to have, but it nevertheless points to a similar underlying problem in Canada’s rural policy. Namely, that we lack an integrated and specific strategy for rural communities, too often viewing them as a charming figment of Canada’s past rather than a dynamic part of our future. Though there are doubtless success stories of small communities that have pivoted to prosperity after the decline of a traditional industry (for example, Lunenburg in Nova Scotia), there are many more examples of ghost towns along highways or hamlets that seem to be barely chugging along with an aging population.
It is not that Canada does not have some programming that exists to support rural livelihoods, mainly coming in the form of various supports to the agricultural sector, but rather that support is doled out too haphazardly and is not integrated with other programs and initiatives. In order to address the twin problems of rural decline and unexpected rural growth, Canada needs to rethink its approach to rural communities at the federal level. Making the Minister for Rural Economic Development a separate role within the newly announced federal cabinet is a good start (as is filling the role with an MP from a decidedly rural riding), but, more policy articulation as to what Canada’s goals for the future of its rural communities are would allow for better planning at all levels of government and civil society for what the future of these communities looks like.
Giving Space to Grow
A key component of establishing dynamic rural economies is ensuring that population levels remain stable instead of declining over time. Though it is a natural part of economic development that populations cluster more in cities, it is also not inevitably true that this means a bleak future for areas outside of the urban core. Rural areas should be allowed to take advantage of their natural selling points, such as a lower cost of living and greater access to the outdoors, in order to attract both new immigrants to Canada and current urban dwellers seeking a different lifestyle. However, they need both the infrastructure and the policy to do so.
At present, specific economic project support for rural areas tends to flow through various regional development agencies (e.g. the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency). These agencies do some good work, but have been critiqued particularly by smaller provinces as being only marginally effective at generating economic opportunities in non-urban areas. One way of addressing this might be to assign specific responsibility for projects targeted at rural areas to the Minister for Rural Economic Development in order to better share best practices across regions. Further, new programs specific to rural areas such as funding for rural internet connectivity could be managed under this same minister in order to provide a consistent approach to funding decisions and provide more certainty to communities seeking funding. The government could also design a rapid surge capacity fund for rural communities which experience unexpected population growth on a year-to-year basis in order to address pressing local infrastructure or staffing concerns.
In terms of immigration, there has been progress in creating pathways which spread immigration impacts more evenly across Canada, such as the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program. A broader immigration program for rural areas could focus on evening out population growth in order to avoid its current heavy concentration in the Greater Toronto and Greater Vancouver areas. Provinces could, in theory, take control of their immigration systems as Quebec has in order to better craft immigration policies for their own unique circumstances. However, this would take a substantial investment of time and resources to stand up and would likely only be feasible if other reform options were tried and found not to have worked. Another approach might be provinces which have seen less immigration banding together to create a regional immigration framework (for example, for the Northern territories or the Atlantic provinces) leading to an agency, though it is unclear if such an arrangement would be constitutionally acceptable to the federal government.
Rural communities produce approximately 30% of Canada’s GDP, and regardless of whether that comes from natural resource operations, agriculture, fisheries or other activities, the stability and growth of their contributions to the wider economy and society of Canada is critical. At the same time, unique challenges of climate change, mismatches between population and skill base and lack of supporting infrastructure make ensuring this contribution more difficult. There are some initiatives, such as rural broadband rollout, that appear to be proceeding well and the federal government has signaled significant investments in rural transit options and some other areas in Budget 2021. Getting these initiatives right, though, will take collaboration between the federal, provincial and municipal levels and a recognition that the political and economic face of rural communities across Canada is changing over time.
The recent, if modest, move of population out of urban centres could be a catalyst for a brighter, more dynamic future for rural Canada. Managing the challenges of this growth, however, requires a government ready to quickly respond to changes and to tailor its overall economic development approaches to specific rural needs.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine
Categories: Society & Culture