Thursday, August 27, 2015

Political, economic and social infrastructure challenges posed by decline of rural areas of Canada

By Michael J Morris
I n 2015 I took my second trip in three years from British Columbia to Ontario, and return, taking essentially the same route. I have updated my musings from my first trip in 2012 following the news that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans amassive infrastructure project.
As I travelled from British Columbia to Ontario and back in the summer of 2012, there was one constant refrain that stayed with me all the way, and remains with me now. I was witnessing first hand the decline of rural Canada, and quite possibly, if things don't change soon, Cranbrook may meet the same fate as I saw in other parts of the country -- boarded up hotels, service stations, stores, restaurants, banks  and homes, in communities that may never have been really prosperous but held their own not so many years ago.

And, in many communities, including my home town of Chapleau, Ontario, the infrastructure is well beyond its past due date. Canada is crumbling all around us!

Transient that I have been, although 2015 marks 26 years that I have lived in Cranbrook, I am one of those fortunate Canadians who lived in Alberta. Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario before coming to British Columbia in 1989.

I travelled by bus from Cranbrook to Calgary, flew to Ottawa, and then drove to North Bay, on to Sudbury and further across Highway 17 to Highway 129 and north for a high school reunion in my home town of Chapleau in 2012. Same route in 2015.
I've made the Ontario portion of my trip many times, and that is when it struck me that things weren't the same, Some communities had all but disappeared except for the closed buildings. I flew back from Ottawa to Calgary.
Perhaps a sign of the times was that the busiest business anywhere on my trip was a Tim Hortons located just off the highway at Blind River, Ontario. 
While I noticed it most in Ontario, on the bus trips to and from Calgary, I saw the same situation developing in some communities in Alberta and British Columbia. Friends have  told me it's the same in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

 I have to make a trip to Brandon, Manitoba, and if I can find a Greyhound bus that will get me from here to there and back, I will see for myself.
There has been some discussion recently about empty space in downtown Cranbrook, and as I continue my walking tours, I am noticing the same along 'The Strip' and at Tamarack Centre.
In those parts of rural Canada that have been especially hard hit, there has been a significant population decline, but so far statistically that does not seem to have become a significant factor in Cranbrook, although in the 26 years I have been here, there has been a net population increase of about 15 to 20 percent. Not exactly inspiring considering that it was just over 16,000 in 1989.
Cranbrook may remain static for some time yet given its role as a regional service centre but if the outlying communities experience population decline, that will obviously affect this community adversely.

Cranbrook faces huge infrastructure challenges too,
Writing in Dal News, a publication of Dalhousie University in Halifax in June 2012, Ryan McNutt notes that "the 'best of times' story is that Canada’s urban centres are strengthening in population, boosted in no small part by significant immigration numbers in major cities like Toronto and Vancouver. The 'worst of times' story ...  declines in rural areas, posing significant political, economic and social challenges for Canada’s future."

And as population declines, there are fewer left to pay for the infrastructure that is needed.
Mr. McNutt quotes Fazley Siddiq, economics professor at Dalhousie’s School of Public Administration and a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University as saying,  “It’s a real tragedy, because the metropolitan/non-metropolitan balance that we’ve had has been altered in a way that’s not desirable,” 
“It’s one thing to say that we’re becoming more and more urbanized, a modern industrialized country. Those developments sound positive, and they are in many respects. But behind the mask of that success is a hollowing out of much of the rest of Canada. And if it isn’t happening yet in certain parts of the country, the potential for this trend to get a lot worse is there.”
Dr. Siddiq noted that while urban growth is not without its challenges—congestion, pollution, traffic and infrastructure, housing and schooling—the increase in population brings with it more business activity and a larger tax base, which can support solutions for addressing those challenges. And then there are the positives of urbanization: more career opportunities, a younger dynamic population, housing booms and more."
“A declining population, in contrast, I don’t see too many positives associated with it,” says Dr. Siddiq. “It can be quite traumatic for families and businesses when home prices go down, jobs become increasingly scarce and businesses no longer are sustainable in small communities. So then people leave, leading to another reduction in business activity and home prices. It’s a downward spiraling effect.”
Dr. Siddiq is studying population trends and their effect but in the McNutt article he did not sound overly optimistic: “Our history has been one of an expanding frontier, and economic activity spilling over. That’s why we have the country that we do. But whether we will continue to be able to sustain viable communities, viable populations, in far-flung areas, is something that causes me great concern.”
However, on a more optimistic note the Canadian Rural Research Network in its June 2013 report found that some rural areas are experiencing population growth - the one closest to Cranbrook that is included in top five rural regions in employment growth in Cranbrook  is Camrose-Drumheller Economic Region in Alberta.  Showing employment growth above the national average for 12 consecutive months are  Thompson-Okanagan Economic Region and Cariboo Economic Region in British Columbia.
These regions may be places to start looking at how they are doing it, and they are not too far away.
The task of ensuring a viable future for Cranbrook, may not be easy, given the immense divide that seems to prevail within the community, but as Lyndon Johnson, former president of the United  States used to say when he was Senate Majority Leader, quoting from the prophet Isaiah, "Come, let us reason together." Much progress can be made when the focus is on those things that bring us together rather than those that divide us.

Let's carefully examine Mr. Trudeau's proposals.

In the interests of full disclosure I am not now and never have been a member of the Liberal Party, or the New Democratic Party. At one time I was a member of the Progressive Conservative Party -- eons ago

My email is

No comments:

Post a Comment

'Living as Kingdom People' by Yme Woensdregt

By Rev. Yme Woensdregt “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” We call it the Golden Rule, and I would guess that most of us th...