By Lars Hallström
On January 14, 2019, the federal government announced the appointment of a new minister. Bernadette Jordan became the Minister of Rural Economic Development, responsible for “championing middle-class job creation, economic opportunity and quality of life in rural Canada.” This work is expected to include the development of a Canadian Rural Economic Development Strategy, investments in rural infrastructure (proposed May 10), rural broadband, family services such as rural affordable housing, early learning, childcare and both economic and immigration initiatives for rural Canada.
Although rural Canada has long-standing and critical importance to the economic and social development of the country, rural development has usually taken second place to broader economic and political goals, and in many ways, this new position is no different. There are roughly 150 rural ridings in Canada (the remaining 188 are considered urban), and the success of any party in those ridings can make or break an election (particularly for the federal Conservative caucus, which is approximately 2/3 rural). However, leaving the electoral motives behind, what does this appointment mean for rural Canadians and what might rural Albertans take away from it?
The developmental trajectory of rural Canada has been well-documented by political scientists (like myself), economists like Mel Watkins or Harold Innis, geographers, sociologists, historians, and the like. From this body of work, it is possible to identify four basic characteristics that have shaped federal rural policy.
First, many rural communities are separated from each other, and from larger centres, by great distances. For example, the distance from Resolute, Nunavut to Edmonton is 2500 km, and to Ottawa is almost 3400 km. Second, the combination of large distances and small populations results in low population density. The Statistics Canada definition for “truly” rural is less than 1000 people and a density of less than 400/sq. km. Third, Canada’s rural population has been declining in comparison to urban, particularly as young people leave rural areas for education, employment and services. Finally, our rural economies are often “extractive” and single-industry, whether agricultural, energy, fisheries or forestry.
These characteristics are linked to a number of core “sustainability challenges” for rural communities, including infrastructural decline, aging populations, decreasing revenues and services, capital and labour flight, softening demand for housing, challenges for service provision across health, education and social sectors and, as has often been the case in Western Canada, the risks of boom and bust cycles. In truly remote and many Indigenous communities, these issues are even greater, and often more complex.
For the new minister, this portfolio means acknowledging not only the diversity of some 4700 rural communities in Canada but the complex inter-relationships between rural development, rural peoples and the politically expedient decisions of the past. Rural communities in Canada are littered with the remnants and effects of economic “development”—whether large-scale agricultural investments (ex. hog farms), construction to support energy development or single-industry economies that (as a recent Globe and Mail series noted) are vulnerable to automation.
What many of these initiatives have failed to include are the increasingly well-documented social, economic, ecological and health vulnerabilities that often come with them—both with their creation and with their operations and failures. Therefore, any “Minister of Rural” must build linkages and think both within, and across, sectors—not just agriculture, infrastructure and natural resources.
Creating those linkages is no simple task. In fact, our systems of Cabinet-based government and bureaucracies evolved to develop policies in a compartmentalized way. Seeking to address the inter-related issues that face rural communities solely with economic development has a demonstrated history in this country, but it’s not always successful for these rural communities.
As the United Conservatives move from campaign to Government and making public policy, I raise the question: should Alberta have a rural minister, or at least a rural policy or strategy? The Progressive Conservative Government spent millions of dollars in, and on, rural communities, but with little strategic direction, design or effect. The NDP, with a stronger urban base than rural, experienced their own adventures with rural politics.
If rural communities and the people who live and work in them truly matter, then perhaps our new provincial Government should provide meaningful, prioritized and thoughtful attention. Not just for the next four years, but for the next 40.
Lars Hallström, Political Studies and Director of the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities, University of Alberta. This column was originally published in the Super Booster on May 28, 2019.