Urban Ontario gives its rural cousin a mixed review

Photo by Simon Carr (Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rural Ontario has long been seething at provincial Liberals for a list of problems it lays at their feet. Now, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) has added a new villain to the list of those it says should show more love for rural Ontario: that is, urbanites.

Prior to the provincial budget being announced, the federation announced results of a survey it conducted with more than 1,000 urban Ontarians (in the Greater Toronto Area), which it says shows rural Ontario doesn’t measure up in the eyes of its urban counterparts.

For example, the survey respondents said they wouldn’t want to live in rural Ontario because they perceive that it lacks good paying jobs, access to health care and amenities.

An overwhelming number of respondents also said they believe the quality of rural schools is inferior to urban Ontario schools.

It wasn’t all dreary. In fact, nine out of 10 respondents said they believe the agri-food sector is capable of creating more jobs. Although they don’t like job availability in rural Ontario now, they think brighter days are ahead.

And they may be right, given the latest Canadian agricultural outlook report, released Tuesday.

The report says Canadian farmers are forecast to see record farm income levels when all the dollars are counted from 2017, and near-record levels in 2018.

Net cash income is forecast to reach a record level in 2017 and remain high in 2018.

At the same time, continued growth in asset values is expected to raise average farm net worth to $3.16 million.

Does that sound like a sector that’s worthy of government investment?

No question about it.

But there’s a disconnect between people’s perception of rural Ontario, and the reality of a prosperous farm economy. The OFA says its survey results illustrate the challenges facing rural Ontario and the opportunities that can be realized with the right investments.

“As OFA advocates for Ontario agriculture, food and rural communities in the lead up to the provincial election, we are asking government to understand the needs and prospects of agri-food and rural communities,” it says. “We are looking for a budget commitment that will spread economic investments around Ontario to produce prosperity in rural and urban areas.”

Ultimately, rural Ontario’s applause for the March budget was muted. But there’s still a lot of time before the June election for the Liberals to roll out some farm-specific goodies – like they did in Wednesday’s budget, promising $500 million to expand broadband internet connectivity in Northern Ontario and rural communities over the next three years. Archaic internet service is one of rural Ontario’s biggest complaints and impediments to economic development.

As well, the Liberals are promising $11 billion (with a “b”) to get a high-speed rail built between Toronto and southwestern Ontario, with stops in Windsor, Chatham, London, Kitchener, Guelph and Toronto’s Union Station.

That would be something for rural Ontarians — or anyone from outside Toronto, for that matter — who cringe at the prospect of going to meetings or events in Toronto, like farm meetings.

For the election, the OFA has a roadmap for any candidate who wants to champion public investment outside of urban areas. It’s created a campaign dubbed Producing Prosperity in Ontario, calling for “distributed investment across rural Ontario” which it says will provide “immediate and ongoing economic and social benefits.”

The federation says investment in small communities improves the physical and social infrastructure in rural Ontario, opening up new opportunities for working and living in communities all across the province.

“This is good for rural Ontario and alleviates the stresses in our urban communities,” it says.

I’m sure that’s true. Now, this upbeat culture really needs to be sold to urban Ontario. Urbanites have a vision of their poor rural cousins struggling in an environment where the schools are inferior, hospitals are limited, jobs are second-rate and amenities are non-existent.

This isn’t the rural Ontario I know and you know. But how will the province ultimately justify investing outside urban areas if its urban citizens think money is being wasted on a lost cause?

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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