CFFO: Rural Ontario Summit Focused on the Need for a Strong Rural Policy

By Nathan Stevens
March 21, 2014

The Rural Ontario Institute recently held a summit to discuss the state of rural Ontario and forge some ideas around a strategy to move forward. The event featured Dr. David Freshwater from the University of Kentucky who shared his insights into building successful rural communities. What became clear is that Ontario has significant challenges if we want to build increasingly prosperous rural communities in this province.

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Dr. Freshwater spoke about the importance of evaluation in determining good rural policy. He argued that evaluation needs to occur early in the process, at stages during policy implementation and there is the need for a final evaluation. This evaluation needs to be measured against a known baseline with specific objectives in mind. Finally it is important to bear in mind that there is no single standard of success. Rather there is a combination of job targets, income levels, wealth generation and environmental and social goals that all matter.

Dr. Freshwater then focused on things that work in rural development. First and foremost, rural development is different from urban development. Rural developers need to focus on the natural strengths of rural communities such as available natural resources, the lack of congestion, and the fact that government is closer to the people than in urban communities. Dr. Freshwater recommended that rural communities focus on small firms rather than large ones, as 50 jobs matter in rural communities. Finally, there is the need to develop multiple generations of leaders who understand that rural areas can be prosperous.

Dr. Freshwater then spent some time talking about regions that work and regions that do not work as well. He cited Quebec with its Pact Rurale, and the European Union with its LEADER program as being very successful over time. However, all of these programs are expensive, have long lag times, high failure rates, and they all need high degree of local commitment and effort to succeed.

On the flip side, he drew a parallel between Ontario and England. Both governments are top down and centralized, both are dominated by a very large metropolitan region with slower growth outside of that region, are largely urban but rural is significant thanks to the agriculture sector, cottage country in Ontario, and strong controls on development. Finally, there is no formal rural policy but lots of Ministries have some level of responsibility.

Dr. Freshwater’s presentation highlighted the need for a bottom-up rural policy if rural Ontario wants to see a prosperous future. There is the need for an overall policy with consistent vision that remains flexible enough for local communities to determine what they want to accomplish. Time will tell if Ontario has the will to implement a rural policy that can help lead the way to more prosperous rural communities.

Nathan Stevens is the General Manager and Director of Policy Development for the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario. The CFFO Commentary represents the opinions of the writer and does not necessarily represent CFFO policy. The CFFO Commentary is heard weekly on CFCO Chatham, CKNX