by Marie Williams-Gagnon, Hayter Publications Inc., Sept 2019
Spending a few hours involved in a municipal economic development strategy session this past week proved both enlightening and frightening, as would be the case in any rural community across Canada.
It’s no secret that rural communities face their own advantages, along with their own unique challenges. The reasons rural communities both suffer and thrive have changed over the years, as have their demographics.
In 1851, nearly nine in 10 Canadians lived in rural areas. The early census’ of this nation contained questions about the number of acres of land attached to a dwelling, the number and type of animals owned as well as the horsepower of equipment used on the property. During that time period, the Canadian economy was based on the primary sector more than today, led by agriculture and natural resources like wood or coal.
The proportion of those living in rural areas has steadily declined, eventually falling below 50 per cent between 1921 and 1931, due mainly to shifts within the Canadian economy.
Between 2006 and 2011, Canada’s rural population did increase by 1.1 per cent, compared to the nation’s overall growth rate of 5.9 per cent. However, in the same period, the rural proportion of the population declined. Ontario is one of four provinces that have the proportion of their population living in rural regions near to or lower than the national average. In fact, Ontario sits second lowest at 14.1 per cent. In a nutshell, today fewer than one in five live in a rural area.
The 2019 demographics indicate that rural communities overall are still facing a declining population, although many from cities are heading out of the urban centres for more reasonable housing prices. While the shift in search of housing is welcome news, it also comes with its own challenges as urbanites learn to cope without round-the-clock store openings, the anonymity of city living, internet options and, at times, even the scents of rural life.
Some opt to simply use their rural homes as residences, putting any involvement within their new communities on the back burner. They have continued to shop, dine and seek entertainment in the cities, places that they commute to everyday for work, instead of seeing what their local communities have to offer.
As many who live in rural areas are aware, there is a lot to offer and many opportunities beyond the farm life although agriculture may have the main economic impact, often followed by motor vehicle parts manufacturing and construction.
While rural Ontario is not attracting the major immigrant population that cities are, it is changing in other ways. No longer are children automatically expected to take over the family farms. As a result, some have opted to sell to neighbours who have often severed the rural homes off and amalgamated the land to create larger farm parcels.
Businesses, which no longer need a storefront thanks to the internet, are growing in rural areas but empty storefronts create unease among potential residents. The challenges small rural businesses face are multiple, ranging from attracting customers who are apt to drive to the city for perceived deals to simply getting the financing to even open their doors. Community businesses, which can be ignored by both newcomers and long-time residents, inevitably remain a target for fundraisers of all types which ultimately cuts into profits.
Rural municipal governments face their own challenges with the need to attract and retain both residents and businesses, to find funding for downloaded services while handling both application bottlenecks and increased regulations for everything from wastewater treatment to building permits. These communities face hurdles attracting and retaining health care professionals and keeping the doors of schools, arenas and churches open.
On the horizon are even more challenges as baby boomers become retired seniors, needing support and housing. Without suitable housing to accommodate an aging population, rural communities may lose even more residents. That is something that census figures are already demonstrating with the number of seniors living in rural Canada being lower (15 per cent) than those living in small and medium centres. Rural Canada is also unique with a small proportion of young adults aged 15 to 29. In 2011, 17 per cent of people living in rural areas were aged 15 to 29, a proportion lower than the national average of 20. Many leave their rural homes in search of higher education and employment, never to return.
There are no magic answers. What must happen closest to home is getting involved in rural communities, buying local and supporting the businesses that in turn support local events and teams. The success or failure of the local economy hinges on the support of the community.
“A successful economic development strategy must focus on improving the skills of the area’s workforce, reducing the cost of doing business and making available the resources business needs to compete and thrive in today’s global economy.” –Rod Blagojevich
Marie Williams-Gagnon, Hayter Publications