Rural priorities should be a central federal election issue

During his recent visit to Napanee, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke a lot about rural issues. That’s hardly surprising given that local MP Mike Bossio is the chair of the Liberal government’s rural caucus. One hopes that as the federal election in October draws closer that leaders and candidates for all parties will continue to keep their plans for rural areas in the forefront.

Between 2001 and 2016, rural communities grew at a rate of 5.5 per cent, compared to a growth rate of 16.9 per cent for urban areas. Statistics Canada data has also noted that between 2011 and 2016, the population between the ages of 15 and 19 has been declining in rural areas — a statistic that reflects in rural school closures and in less-than-positive future projections. Between that number dwindling and a migration of people to urban areas after high school, it isn’t hard to see challenging days ahead for small-town Canada, no matter how prosperous the overall economy might be looking.

Whomever is elected into government must continue to ensure that rural areas see economic growth and sustain the business that exists currently. Ultimately, it comes down to connectivity, skills, and innovation. Commendably, Bossio has advocated for all three.

With respect to connectivity, a priority must be set to continue to increase access to higher upload and download speeds via broadband connection and better access to cellular and mobile services outside of major cities. This form of connectivity will help encourage people to choose rural area for lifestyle and still do business with larger centres. It will also allow access to education and other services like health-care that would make rural areas more attractive to stay in and to move to. Following digital connectivity, continued investment in rural transportation infrastructure would also strengthen ties in communities and allow more people access to employment. Investment in pooled transportation and marketing programs that allow rural companies to get their goods to market for less is also a valuable piece of the puzzle.

Skills training is a must. Besides the connectivity piece, one of the major deterrents for job creators looking to set up shop is not having the right labour force to meet the demands of the workplace. The more government supports sector-based training opportunities and takes advantage of technology to deliver them, there’s a higher likelihood of having the well-paying jobs that will keep families in their rural communities. A focus on skilled trades also helps. At the same time, it is crucially important that government at all levels reaches out to existing business to determine its needs and to help develop long-term transition plans — even if there aren’t natural ones in place.

There’s a real importance to innovation, particularly in sectors like agriculture, to make sure processes and systems are green, clean, and efficient. Farmers have made it clear their costs have risen with higher taxation on the fuels that run their machinery. If there is to be a carbon tax, the money must come back those producers to innovate and create better processes. That way, they can more ably support the rural economy through employment and with affordable, high quality goods. Of course, we also wouldn’t mind seeing no tax and letting those people make their own financial decisions.

Rural Canada cannot be left behind. It must be a discussion point leading up to the federal election. Over the next 10 months, let’s see who has the best plan to sustain it and cast our votes accordingly.

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