It’s time for the Tories to think hard about post-pandemic rural Ontario

OPINION: Before 905 and 416 issues take centre stage in an election year, the government has the chance to start making big changes that would reshape the entire province
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jan 25, 2021
The kind of white-collar employment that has been driving Toronto’s employment growth has been dispersed to other parts of the province. (iStock/AnjelaGr)

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The experience of living through a global pandemic is, we can all agree, not good. Thousands of Ontarians are dead, a quarter of a million of us have been made ill, and in order to keep those numbers as low as they are (still not low enough), we’ve had our freedoms dramatically curtailed either by law or by choice. It has, in short, sucked.

But grey clouds are nothing if not an invitation to search for a silver lining, and this year’s Rural Ontario Municipal Association conference (hosted remotely, in partnership with TVO) does give us an opportunity to think about what the future holds for rural parts of Ontario, especially those where the economic growth of the prior decade really didn’t add much in the way of prosperity.

Those places are legion: long before the pandemic, there were reasonable arguments about the province’s two-speed economy — rapid growth in Toronto and a handful of other big cities, but stagnation for the rest. COVID-19 has changed that. The kind of white-collar office employment that has been the driver of Toronto’s employment growth has been dispersed not just to people’s homes but also to other parts of the province, as those with the means to do so leave Toronto and decamp for different settings.

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Some of those people have left for parts of rural Ontario, moving back either to old family homes or to cottages that have now been turned into places more amenable for their families. This has all sorts of policy implications in the here and now — water service, waste collection, education funding. But arguably more important is what the current government wants the future to look like for rural Ontario.

This is, in a way, a kind of “Etch A Sketch” moment: the pandemic has shaken everything up, and we don’t need to feel bound by anything except the faint outlines of what was there before. But if we are, in fact, successfully vaccinated by the fall, this moment may pass as 2022 inevitably becomes an election year and different issues take centre stage. Despite the current demographic shuffle, it’s still true that winning elections in Ontario means winning big cities, and the issues that cater most to 905 and 416 voters will become the focus a year from now.

So now’s the time for the Tories to think hard about how rural Ontario will come out of this pandemic. Take remote work as the most obvious example: if more people decide that life is good with open skies and fresh air, that’s great for them — but municipalities still rely primarily on property taxes for revenue, and if head offices are still clustered in big cities, then many municipalities will feel a pinch from having to provide new services to new residents without as much new tax revenue as they’d otherwise collect.

And that’s before we get into questions like: Will people actually put up with rural Ontario’s spotty internet service when it’s no longer a matter of life and death? And what about employers who will inevitably want to force workers back into their offices (not a hypothetical issue — this is already happening while the pandemic still rages)?

In theory, there are answers to these questions. Municipalities could be given different types of taxation powers; the government could invest more in rural broadband; Ontario workers could be given a clear right in employment law to work from home as much as can reasonably be allowed. The Tories probably aren’t thinking about that last one as a boon for rural Ontario, but they should be.

Our leaders have become fond of saying there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but that also means this moment will pass. And when it does, the government will start to lose the opportunity to make the kind of big changes that could reshape our province. If it wants to do something big for rural Ontario, it doesn’t have a lot of time.

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