We can ignite a comeback for rural communities

By MPP Toby Barrett

The economy of Haldimand, Norfolk and much of Ontario is still struggling. The good news is there is hope. Rural Ontario has the unrivalled work ethic and the raw materials needed to forge a modern, dynamic economic recovery.

The management firm McKinsey & Company, predicts by 2025 emerging countries will spend $30 trillion annually for things we grow, harvest, mine, invent and build in Ontario, and locally. McKinsey calls this “The biggest growth opportunity in the history of capitalism”. We cannot let this coming boom pass us by.

We can ignite a comeback for our rural communities. The only thing standing in the way of progress to create new jobs outside of cities is a government that treats rural Ontario as “out of sight, out of mind”. The economic success of both rural and urban communities is inextricably linked – not separate, as the current government would have you believe.

We must overturn 10 years of government decisions to get our rural economy and critical agri-food and resources sector back in shape with lower taxes, more skilled labour, affordable energy, fair and free trade and less red tape and government interference.

But in order to get there we need to do more to boost business and economic activity in rural and small-town Ontario. This government’s ineffective economic development programs rarely deliver results. Clearly, a new direction is required as the approach of picking winners and losers with grants, loans and subsidies has failed.

The journey to jobs, prosperity and growth begins by setting great goals – but to attain them we must shake ourselves from complacency. Envision a rural, small town environment known for its ingenuity, inventiveness and innovation. Knowledge, ideas and hard work will take us back to the top.

An important part of creating jobs is having the necessary infrastructure – roads, bridges, culverts, broadband internet…

For many in rural communities, owning a car or a truck and purchasing gas are not luxuries. Rather, it is essential for getting to work, buying groceries and allowing our children to participate in activities. But the proceeds from gas tax only go to urban communities with transit. That’s not fair and ignores the infrastructure needs of rural Ontario.

Strong rural communities also need strong schools so they can remain destinations for businesses and families. The economic impact of closing a school in a rural area should always be considered. We should think of our schools as community learning centres – but not all the learning has to be delivered by teachers. Virtual learning offers more courses in schools without needing 25 people in the classroom or providing a classroom teacher. Schools should be real community hubs that attract money and other services from other levels of government and community organizations. Schools that have day-care centres attached are actually a first step in this direction.

Access to medical practitioners and facilities is far from adequate in many communities. A physician’s move to rural Ontario may often hinge on the availability of schools, or child care or employment for a spouse.

Rural and small town Ontario is an important part of our province and our economy, but too often it isn’t considered when decisions are made around the cabinet table or within the bureaucracy. It is time for a new approach that includes more consultation and respect.