Ontario is simultaneously a big province and very small one: it’s geographically larger than most countries, but most of the actual people live within a reasonable commute of Toronto, Ottawa, and a handful of other large cities. That leaves vast areas of the province — the north, certainly, but also large parts of the south — with little political voice at Queen’s Park and a pronounced sense of rural alienation.
Rural communities looking to grow their economies — either to attract new families or simply to hang on to the ones they have — face daunting challenges. They generally don’t have the wealth that larger cities can tap into to provide the services and amenities that city-dwellers take for granted, which means they have to rely on a province whose support is often conditional and inconsistent.
But beyond all that, there’s a more fundamental problem: a lot of what others “know” about rural Ontario is just wrong.
For starters, according to the Rural Ontario Institute, the province’s rural population isn’t actually shrinking, in absolute terms. Rural communities aren’t growing as fast as big cities are by any means, but the statistical fact of rural Ontario “losing population” has as much to do with definitions as demography. The city of Belleville, for example, grew large enough to become its own census metropolitan area in 2016, and so while little changed in the day-to-day lives of people in eastern Ontario, the region “lost” rural residents.
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Then there’s what rural Ontario actually does. If you ask the provincial government, it’ll tell you that rural policy is tucked into the larger ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. Rural policy is farm policy, and farm policy is rural policy.
Except (again, according to the ROI) most families in rural Ontario aren’t farmers, and that’s been true for half a century.
“Farmland is the most visible use, when you’re travelling through the countryside. It’s still a significant sector, certainly,” says Norman Ragetlie, policy director for the institute. “But it’s been a tough perception to shake.”
“There’s kind of a failure of imagination, I think.”
But even if we clear up such misunderstandings about rural Ontario, we’re still facing the question of what, exactly, the government should do to help rural communities grow. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture is going into 2018 (an election year, after all) with a campaign to boost economic development, job creation, and affordable housing while preserving agricultural land.
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One big priority for rural areas is broadband internet access: while most rural communities have access to minimal broadband now, the households that can’t get connections better than 5Mbps (what the CRTC considers a minimal level of service) are overwhelmingly concentrated in rural areas.
More broadly, Ragetlie says, the province needs to take regional policies more seriously. It’s practically a cliché that “one size fits all” policies made in Toronto tend not to take the realities of rural life into account.
“We don’t think enough about these issues,” he says. “We’re not gelling these discussions into any coherent policy framework, and it’s not an easy thing to do.”
The province tries to apply policies neutrally across all of Ontario, but even then, failures can be messy: the fight last year over rural school closures was just one example of the Liberal government being forced to retreat after accusations that its policies were hurting rural communities.
Instead of trying to apply policies related to, say, school funding or infrastructure spending “equally” across Ontario, the government should instead take place-based policies more seriously. Historically, economists and other policy advisors have cautioned against economic-development policies intended to prop up lagging regions, saying that limited money does more good when it’s used to help individuals either improve their skills or move to faster-growing areas (or both).
A paper commissioned by the ROI argues that the province should adopt a more regional focus for its economic policies — one that would complement the more traditional grants it offers to regional businesses (which may or may not do much economic good, but do provide MPPs with ribbon-cuttings to attend), and its efforts to help workers build skills.
“The sheer size and diversity of rural Ontario means that for any policy to be effective, it has to deal with different types of rural places in different ways,” writes David Freshwater. “For example, opportunities in farming areas in southwestern Ontario differ from those in the mining belt near Sudbury.” In other words, it’s not enough simply to have a rural policy: Ontario probably needs a half-dozen or so different regional rural policies.
Freshwater concedes that a more regional focus might actually harm overall economic growth, but he says that the status quo — rapid growth in a handful of big cities, and stagnation elsewhere — isn’t without risks either: lopsided growth carries both political and economic risks, something that’s become more salient in the last 18 months or so, as both Donald Trump and pro-Brexit votes were concentrated in regions that economic success had left behind.
So what would more regionally focused policymaking look like? Take the example of high-speed rail between Toronto and Windsor, which the Liberal government has promised to deliver in stages over the next decade. Many local communities are worried about the effects the project might have on them: the new infrastructure will affect private property; business travellers in a hurry may bypass some towns altogether. Instead of considering how best to whisk passengers from Toronto to Windsor, the government could have looked at which options would best serve the broader region of southwest Ontario. It might have arrived at the same conclusion — high-speed rail has certainly helped grow regional economies in other countries. But if you want to be sure of your answers, you have to ask the right questions.