Righting Rural Inequities in a Post-COVID Canada
A country quiet has fallen on city streets around the world, while calls for social distancing have brought Canadians together to ‘flatten the curve’. But beneath our unity of purpose, the pandemic reminds us of perennial inequities between rural and urban Canada. Our resolve, at the other end of this crisis, presents an opportunity not just to level the field for rural communities, but to fast-track rural priorities as a pillar of a strategic national recovery. Canada is premised on regional equalization – an idea at odds with the unique struggles of rural areas facing COVID-19. Small, rural hospitals are dependent on visiting health professionals that are preoccupied in larger centres, while community leaders plead with seasonal residents to stay away to protect local resources. First Nations with overcrowded housing and unsafe water confront directives for hygiene and distance, knowing that their healthcare access is already constrained. Northerners, in particular, fear that their need for basics, like PPE, will become collateral damage in the wake of an urban outbreak. These realities epitomize the tension between rural communities and the larger centres where law and policy are crafted. Inequities have arisen from urban disregard, misunderstanding, or over-generalization of rural circumstances, geography, and aspirations. The divide is well-documented: rural communities experience worse access to justice, health outcomes, educational attainment, and lower capital investment than their urban counterparts. Rural voices are also diminishing. The recent federal election was distributed almost entirely by population density, suggesting that rural support can be taken for granted, without sophisticated rural platforms. Likewise, changes in Statistics Canada programs have suppressed data which inform rural policy development. In result, even the most transformative and necessary of rural needs have been easily forsaken. In a time of crisis, the consequences of such neglect and underinvestment could be severe for rural communities, both during the pandemic and in the period to follow. Five principles must guide a strategic recovery effort that includes rural Canada: First, our recovery is a chance to make evidence-based investments in rural communities that make sense for the Canada we want to be. As Northern Policy Institute CEO Charles Cirtwill puts it, our economic recovery should be used to build things we already need. For wide swaths of rural Canada, that means playing catch-up on infrastructure deficits, but also spending on long-overdue basics: bringing clean water and cost-effective transportation to the far north, and connecting rural communities to high-speed internet and cellular service. These investments will provide many communities with the basic ecosystem for improved economic development, market access, and expanded options for public services in remote locations. Second, our post-COVID policy should be more focused on writing the next chapter for rural communities in transition than it is about writing cheques to get stimulus funds out the door. We can leverage the recovery to respond to some of the demographic forces at play in rural communities, like aging and shrinking populations, and the loss of traditional employers in single-industry towns. In doing so, governments can lay the groundwork for rural centres to become self-sustaining – rather than continuing down trajectories of decline and lost human capital. In Northern Ontario, the writing is on the wall: 1,700 new immigrants are needed per year to stabilize the region’s population between now and 2040, and to mitigate a growing ratio of dependents to workers. Immigration pilots have been launched in some rural settings. However, policy nudges to facilitate workplace adaptation, business transition, and connectivity will allow other rural challenges to dovetail with domestic trends too. Internal migration statistics show that Canadians are leaving our 3 largest cities much faster than they are moving to them – a fact attributed to skyrocketing urban housing costs (which may be exacerbated by personal debt and pandemic-related job losses). Many profitable businesses in rural Canada are also facing a wave of retirements, with no clear successors. The experience of the pandemic may also trigger an uptick in deurbanization on its own. Notably, while few of Ontario’s immigration streams align with its northern job needs, the workplace itself is becoming less geographically confined. As Kevin Lynch and Paul Deegan recently predicted, the pandemic has ushered in a widespread adoption of technology in the workplace, education, and government that will endure. Rural communities with sufficient broadband, transportation, and affordable housing stand to benefit as employers and institutions build on their remote capacity and workers come to expect virtual work and learning options. Third, rural Canadians can also be leaders in a post-COVID Canada. Rural communities are case studies in building resilient and self-sufficient economies. As we look inward for food and resource security, many of the policy choices which confront us are the same ones that rural communities have been championing for years. “Buy local” movements and related social enterprises have been a mainstay of many rural economies – particularly where local food products are concerned. A move away from global supply hubs for food and other products could also give rise to more distributed supply networks, and new jobs. Communities that struggled in a globalized marketplace may find opportunities in a regionalized one if governments or market forces mandate domestic supplies of essential and strategic goods. Fourth, post-COVID should be post-colonial — and reconciliation must be part of the picture. The role of rural Indigenous communities in Canada’s post-COVID economy must be embraced. Today Indigenous communities are the youngest and only growing communities in much of rural Canada. To cultivate and retain their talent and human capital, the economic strategies of rural municipalities must integrate local Indigenous needs, identities, history, and culture. Already, many rural communities are service hubs for outlying First Nations, and Indigenous peoples also have a role to play in the resource-based industries of their territory. Just as it is incumbent on governments to heed the call of reconciliation by Indigenizing education, social services, and governance, leaders must facilitate collaboration between Indigenous and settler governments on local strategies and opportunities. Stimulus can be used as a tool to incentivize joint projects and reward collaborative relationships and service delivery between Indigenous and non-Indigenous rural communities. Small municipalities, like my own, are already demonstrating the political will for a new relationship. Fifth, we must develop a modern and diversified conception of rural Canada. Dwindling populations, political presence, and media representation have conspired to paint rural communities in tropes and archetypes which harm their ability to attract new residents or to effectively advocate on their priorities. The loss of local media, in particular, has shuttered important platforms for discourse, culture, and contemporary perspective on rural issues, leading to simplified rural narratives in the marketplace of ideas. This reinforces a cycle of civic deterioration by entrenching pessimism and distrust in institutions at a time when many rural people face frustrating economic prospects. The success of rural Canada depends on renewed civic engagement and participation, and requires that a diversity of rural perspectives be acknowledged, voiced, and sought out by our institutions. One way this can be accomplished is by earmarking recovery resources to build up and modernize civic institutions in rural communities – including local governments and media – in order to revitalize and diversify rural leadership, advocacy, and culture.
Today policymakers are tasked with plotting a targeted recovery that fulfills the promise of regional equity and sets a course for a Canada with a vibrant and sustainable rural presence. How we account for rural inequities in the post-COVID world will test our commitment to providing all communities with opportunities to thrive in a new decade. Will we marshal stimulus and policy that advance longstanding rural needs, or enter the post-pandemic era with lip service and life-support that ignores underlying – solvable – rural challenges? Douglas W. Judson is a lawyer and municipal councillor in Fort Frances, Ontario. The opinions expressed are his own.