We are pleased to be featuring a two-part series exploring some of the complex issues and ideas facing our communities.
Guest Article by Ken Coates
Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation
Rural and small town Canada finds itself in times of constant change. As we look forward to 2050, we contemplate a world that is being transformed by technological innovation, globalization and climate change. Communities and regions that seek to prosper have to be more proactive, more flexible and more forward-looking than in the past. The road ahead promises to be complicated, with prosperity and stability for rural and small town areas far from assured.
Rural and small town Canada are not alone in facing 21st century challenges. Rural depopulation is global in nature; more than half the world’s population is urban for the first time in human history. Farming, long the cornerstone of the rural economy, is facing an intense process of concentration and corporatization. City state economies – perhaps five or six in all of Canada – are vibrant and growing. Much of the rest of the Canadian economy is facing steady if not precipitous decline. Some communities will continue to thrive, particularly those in scenic or recreational areas, transportation hubs, or areas with solid, long-term resource economies. Rural areas suffer, too, from negative stereotypes and a pro-urban ethos that dominates most of the public discussion of the nation’s social and economic future.
Community leaders from small towns and rural areas know a great deal about common problems: steady economic decline, population loss, the out-migration of young people, the inability to attract and retain immigrants, the concentration of retail and industrial activity in the hands of fewer firms, poor infrastructure (especially in terms of the Internet), weak government services and education, substantial job losses with key local employers, and the long-term problems associated with diseconomies of scale. The list of challenges is long and complex. At times, it seems overwhelming.
The glass is far from empty. Rural and small town Canada are so focused on challenges that they rarely articulate the many opportunities, which range from access to natural resources (including food supplies), lifestyle considerations of space and time, social proximity and a strong sense of community, the inherent practicality and creativity of rural peoples, low housing costs compared to cities, limited time lost commuting, and far greater social inclusion. Rural communities have a great deal to offer its residents and the country at large. They deserve a stable and prosperous future.
Where are the Allies?
Perhaps the greatest problem is that rural and small town Canada has few allies outside the sector. Politicians at the provincial and federal levels have no easy or saleable solutions and there is not enough political weight in rural areas to hold the interest of national political leaders. Major businesses and financial institutions are not particularly keen or, sadly, even aware of the problems and opportunities in rural Canada. Conversely, formers residents can be mobilized to support their former home territories, suggesting that rural philanthropy could be a source of long-term assistance in the pursuit of rural revitalization. On balance, however, rural and small town Canada are pretty much on their own.