Rural Priorities Are Vital to Urban Ontario, Too


Owen RobertsIs rural Ontario unique – or indispensable?

Some would argue both. And a new poll designed to eek out rural priorities suggests they’re right.

The poll in question, which opened after the provincial election was called last week and closed yesterday (May 7) at 5 p.m., was led by the Rural Ontario Institute. And while it’s among dozens of surveys underway to check the electorate’s pulse — with campaigning for the June 12 election now in full swing – it’s the only online poll I’ve seen soliciting rural participation.

This kind of open survey does not provide accurate enough results to be considered water-tight. But it certainly offers a glimpse of what people think.

And in that light, the questions are perhaps more revealing than the answers are likely to be.

Here’s why: The institute described this poll as “an opportunity for respondents to share the most important priorities for the rural Ontario community they are most familiar with.”

Note that wording. It didn’t restrict responses to farmers. Or even to farmers and non-farming rural residents. Instead, it solicited thought from anyone who believed they had a stake in the place to chime in, any citizens interested enough to put their rural-oriented concerns to their local candidates, and find out what plans they have to address them.

Clever. Right off the bat, the institute flung a wide net. And rightly so, when you look at the survey’s suggested priority list, the ones the institute used to draw responses.

For example, the survey asks respondents to prioritize efforts to improve local water and sewage systems, roads and bridges, and provincial highways.

These appear to be “rural” matters. But who from urban Ontario doesn’t think that’s a priority for them, too? Provincial highways passing through rural Ontario are how we get from town to town, from city to cottage. That’s a priority for manufacturers, processors, cottagers, and many more.

And what about municipal infrastructure? That sounds local and community-specific. But for many urban Ontario towns and cities, their drinking water either comes from or flows through rural Ontario, in rivers they value for recreation or aesthetics. So of course they’d consider modern and sound rural municipal infrastructure vital, if they thought about it.

Then there’s climate change and invasive species, which likewise appear on the rural Ontario suggested priorities list.

But I believe Ontarians, regardless of where they live, have taken a new interest in the unusually unpredictable weather and wild swings in extremes. They also care whether they’re going to be able to catch something other than Asian carp in the fragile and precious Great Lakes. Again, these are rural matters for the survey, but they affect many people.

And how about economic priorities, such as job opportunities, local food development and rural tourism? Or human resources matters, such as youth retention, services for the aging, “newcomer attraction” and housing affordability? No one will move to rural areas if services are lacking, and young people will be reluctant to build lives and careers there if the demographic is out of whack.

Likewise, urban Ontario – or any city anywhere — is poorly served if job-seeking ruralites flock there expecting to find work. When labour needs are met but people keep pouring in, cities then have to look after them. That creates new needs all by itself.

And we haven’t even touched on urban sprawl, farmland preservation and renewable energy. Some of these become rural issues because urban Ontarians force them on their rural counterparts. But that cause-and-effect hardly makes it fair to call these purely “rural” issues and priorities.

I’ll bring you the survey results in weeks to come. But regardless of the specific outcome, it’s clear to me rural Ontario is indeed indispensable to urban Ontario, just like any rural areas are to their neighbouring cities. Municipal boundaries change with the lines on a map, but the symbiotic relationship between the two does not.

Owen Roberts writes a weekly column here at Real Agriculture. Click here for past features.

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