As cities grow bigger, rural communities are getting smaller…does this sound familiar?
Canada’s small towns under siege
As populations in urban centres grow, what happens to our rural communities?
By Lindsay Jolivet | Yahoo Canada News
As the mayor of Cape Breton Regional Municipality stood at the airport, waiting for a flight to Halifax where he would try to sell a plan to renew his area, he witnessed just how badly his constituents needed the change he was seeking.
Mayor Cecil Clarke said he saw children and spouses crying as their loved ones, 120 residents of this struggling area, boarded a cross-country flight that would take them to work in Alberta.
“It’s affecting the families, and in some cases it’s breaking the family units apart,” he says. “That’s not a good thing.”
And not everyone is commuting – they’re leaving. Economic decline has siphoned more than 15 per cent of this municipality’s population in the last 15 years. Cape Breton Regional Municipality is considered a metropolitan area, made up of many smaller towns with Sydney as its urban hub. But even after its amalgamation in 1995, the area has failed to recover from the closure of the coal mines, steel plants and cod fisheries that once made these communities thrive.
Aging infrastructure and a looming unemployment rate of 18.6 per cent are only two of its many challenges.
“It’s a huge concern,” Clarke says.
Clarke: “A Band-Aid doesn’t hold. What we need is a real solution and that’s what we’re doing.”
Others, too, have expressed concern about paralyzed local economies in non-metropolitan areas losing industry, services,land value and people – a series of pangs that, by some accounts, could hurt the well-being of the people who live in these communities and unravel the threads that tie small-town Canada together.
Rural depopulation isn’t new. Urbanization and the decline of natural resource-based industries like mining have led North Americans, particularly young people, to migrate out of their hometowns in search of better opportunities and different lifestyles, with the effect of a handful of metropolitan areas in Canada growing while many other, smaller areas decline.
Fazley Siddiq, a professor at Dalhousie University, is working on a book about his research on population shifts over the past 50 years in Canada and the United States, conducted during his year as a Fulbright chair at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Siddiq says that while Canada’s population has grown nationally, there are disparities between provinces, regions and towns. He sees a hollowing out in many of Canada’s small communities and he’s worried it could have devastating consequences.
For example, Siddiq found that between 1986 and 2010, the population of the town of Stikine, B.C. had a negative growth rate of 45 per cent while the growth rate in York, Ont., north of Toronto, was 186 per cent.
Cape Breton’s population declined at a rate of 17.11 per cent over that period.
“The clear trend we’re seeing is the larger cities – the metropolitan areas are growing, the non-metropolitan areas are not growing, and especially in Atlantic Canada – they are declining.”
In 1961, slightly more than half of Canada’s population lived outside of major metropolitan areas. By 2011, over 70 percent of us live in cities. In addition, more than 60 per cent of immigrants between 2008 and 2012 chose to live in Canada’s biggest urban centres: Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver.
Siddiq says policy-makers may soon face tough decisions about whether to prop up struggling towns with investment or use that money in big cities where more Canadians live.
“It’s a festering wound,” he says.
We need to, first of all, understand this is a very serious problem. That unless we address it, it will lead to a very serious collapse of real estate prices, collapse of local businesses.
— Dalhousie professor Fazley Siddiq
The issue has experts, politicians and community leaders divided. Some, such as economist Rose Olfert, suggest it’s best to let economic forces work untouched, even if it means losing some communities.
Olfert, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, says we shouldn’t spend finite public funds to sustain towns that aren’t viable; towns might find solutions on their own, and if Canadians want to move to cities, they will go.
“I don’t know why we want to intervene in this process,” she says.
Olfert says the forces that draw Canadians out of small towns – including job prospects, nightlife and the variety of attractions cities offer – are powerful and they’re not easily slowed down, though they can create hardship.
“This lament for rural areas, it’s very real and genuine and emotional sometimes,” she says. “Because in that transition there are individuals that are caught.”
Siddiq’s concern is for those individuals, but it’s also one of time; as people choose cities like Toronto over smaller Canadian municipalities, they leave fewer residents to pay taxes and to support local business. And Siddiq says life could become much more difficult for those who stay unless change comes soon.
“We need to, first of all, understand this is a very serious problem. That unless we address it, it will lead to a very serious collapse of real estate prices, collapse of local businesses,” he says.
“It has the potential to ruin the lives of hard working people, for no apparent fault on their part.”
Although the trend has been ongoing for decades, Siddiq says he worries we are approaching a point when the damage will be more severe and the death knell will toll more swiftly for towns that fail to reinvent themselves for a modern, service-oriented economy.
He likens the effect to a tight family budget.
“If your family budget is being reduced by 2 per cent over the year, the first few years you manage but then there comes a point where you’re no longer able to pay rent, you’re no longer able to buy food. And then of course the family is no longer viable,” he says.
Olfert: ‘Tell me what it is we’re buying. What do we get in return?’
Though many rural and small town communities’ family budgets, so to speak, are shrinking each year, sociologist Bill Reimer at Concordia University says these areas built our country on their agriculture and their natural resources, and they contribute to Canada’s national prosperity in ways we tend to overlook.
“It’s easy to forget that our smartphones, cars, and urban lifestyles are largely paid for by our international trade in rural-based goods: grains, fish, timber, and energy,” Reimer wrote in an email exchange.
“If our rural communities and the lifestyles of people living in them are left to deteriorate we will all suffer in the long run.”
Siddiq says policymakers must act now to prevent long-term damage to the economy and the vulnerable individuals living in dwindling areas.
“We owe it to each other to do our best, to protect each other and to ensure that if certain communities are no longer viable that we do something about it,” Siddiq says.
He says proactive local leadership, government support or in some cases amalgamation could be part of strategies to slow the decline. But for towns without hope of recovering, there’s the option of encouraging everyone to simply clear out.
“Do we just abandon territory? I mean is that possible? Yes, I’m not ruling it out. I don’t know. That’s why we need to have the discussion,” Siddiq says.
“If we must relocate communities, we need to start the process now. Because thinking the problem will go away, that’s the worst thing,” he adds.
Newfoundland and Labrador has a community relocation program through which residents can receive up to a $270,000 payout for leaving if their towns ask the provincial government for resettlement help.
However, Olfert says subsidizing residents to leave dying communities seems “excessive,” even if it limits the damage to people and local economies.
“I don’t know if we want to ease that transition. There will be unpleasant things,” she says.
It’s easy to forget that our smartphones, cars, and urban lifestyles are largely paid for by our international trade in rural-based goods: grains, fish, timber, and energy.
— Sociologist Bill Reimer
Olfert says she’s sympathetic to those who are caught in a population shift, but stepping in might only drag out the pain for towns that will die anyway and the merit of a government investment remains unclear.
“Tell me what it is we’re buying. What do we get in return? It might be justified but what are the benefits?”
Cecil Clarke says that in Cape Breton, provincial and federal investments are buying opportunities in an area of enormous economic value to the country.
He cited the potential European trade agreement with Canada that could improve shipping opportunities for the Port of Sydney and its fisheries.
“When you look at that lens, you’d say this is a very strategic area worthy of the investment,” he says.
Based on that view, Cape Breton has proposed a $300 million, five-year capital plan, asking for support from the provincial and federal governments to revitalize the area with a strategy focused on attracting new business.
The plan includes repairs to crumbling infrastructure such as century-old sewer lines, new buildings for transit, upgraded police and firefighting buildings and a new Farmer’s Market. The plan also proposes expanding the size of Sydney’s port to bring in more coveted tourist dollars.
Cape Breton estimates its capital plan, which has the province’s support, would create about 500 jobs, and perhaps it could start to re-assemble the pieces that made this area important in years past.
“In both world wars, this port and the people here were fundamental to global peace and achieving that,” Clarke says. “Our geography hasn’t changed, economics have, and we have to get that in sync.”
That could mean converting former mining towns into bedroom communities, tearing down derelict houses and ensuring every dollar spent will be worth each penny.
“A Band-Aid doesn’t hold. What we need is a real solution and that’s what we’re doing,” Clarke says.
As for those leaving Cape Breton for work, Clarke says many of these reluctant migrants haven’t found a better home elsewhere.
“People don’t want to leave,” he says. “We have thousands of people that are making a trans-Canada commute just because of the attachment they have to their homes.”
Clarke said even his younger brother has moved to Alberta for work, but he wants to come home.
“That, no academic model can take into account — the attachment of how you’re associated with the place you’re from.”
Original Article Here: http://ca.news.yahoo.com/canada-s-small-towns-under-seige-162512916.html