Senate committee about to release report on rural poverty and rural decline in CanadaPublished on 26 May 2008 Publications by Senator Joyce Fairbairn (retired)
In the spring of 2006, the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, to which I have the privilege of chairing, was authorized to examine and report on rural poverty and rural decline in Canada. It has been nearly two years since that time and after hearing from more than 330 witnesses, visiting more than 20 small towns in every province and territory, and after receiving countless submissions, I am happy to say that we have reached the final drafting stage of the report. Barring unforeseen circumstances the report should be released in June 2008.
It has been a long journey, but one that I believe was long overdue. To the committee’s knowledge, no other federal Parliamentary committee has written a report devoted exclusively to rural poverty, although it has emerged as a theme in some more general studies of poverty such as the 1971 Special Senate Committee on Poverty’s report entitled, Poverty in Canada (often referred to as the Croll Committee report).
The committee’s interest in studying rural poverty arose out of its concern over the long-term problem of persistently low farm incomes and their effects on rural Canada. Since the beginning of the study period, grain prices have increased but so have fuel, fertilizer, and other farm inputs (incidentally the committee is currently holding hearings on the rise of farm input prices). On the other hand, pork and beef prices have collapsed, creating a serious income crisis in those sectors and prompting the committee to release the report The Livestock Industry in Crisis in December 2007.
In the report, the committee recommended the federal government address the livestock industry’s critical cash flow problems. That said, it should be recognized that rural poverty extends beyond farm poverty. In fact, many committee witnesses have stated that agricultural and rural policies are not necessarily synonymous. It became evident early on that the scope of the study was going to be immense. To steer us on the right path, the committee turned to academics government officials and community organizations to help with thorny definitional and thematic issues surrounding rural poverty and rural decline in Canada.
Their testimony helped form the basis of the committee’s interim report, Understanding Free Fall: The Challenge of Rural Poor in December 2006. The interim report did not include recommendations; instead it served as a starting point for discussion and consultation, particularly for the committee’s travels to rural communities.
In a study such as rural poverty it is hard to overstate how important it is to go beyond various concepts of poverty in rural areas, and to meet face to face with rural citizens to listen to their concerns and unique circumstances. It was also important for the committee to travel to every province and territory in Canada. In fact, you might say that the art of making good policy for rural Canada rests on the art of listening and recognizing the vast differences that exist between different parts of rural Canada.
In talking to rural citizens, the committee was told that the most vulnerable groups were the elderly, single parents and the disabled. These groups are more vulnerable because in rural Canada, health centres and social services are often located a great distance from home and public transportation is nearly non-existent. In addition, a recent study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) concluded that due to a number of social-economic factors, rural Canadians have shorter life expectancies than their urban counterparts.
The latest Census (2006) indicates that the share of rural Canada to total population dropped below 20 per cent for the first time in the nation’s history. This forms part of a long-standing trend of continued rural population decline—a decline that exacerbates the poverty problem. Soon a sizable segment of the Canadian workforce will be retiring. If nothing is done, countless rural communities could experience rapid decline in the working age population. Rural communities already have low population, making the impact even greater.
A vicious circle of decline often develops, for remote and often resource-dependent rural communities; low population means there is a lack of critical mass for public services, infrastructure, and business investment. The lack of business investment leads to fewer jobs, resulting in the out-migration of youth and ultimately reduced population— and thus the circle continues.
The committee’s report will bring forward ideas aimed at ending and reversing rural decline. I am not naïve enough to think we can save every rural community, but I know that the government has a role to play and that the revitalization of rural Canada also depends on citizens taking matters into their own hands and actively planning for the future. In short, the federal government should support and facilitate, but not dictate what needs to be done. At the very least, the federal government should pay more attention to rural Canada.
We owe it to ourselves—a healthy rural Canada is an essential part of a strong country. If we lose our rural communities, we lose a bit of ourselves, our heritage, our future and the option of a different way of life.
Liberal Senator Joyce Fairbairn is chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.