Stats don't lie. Norman Ragetlie of Rural Ontario Institute says small town and rural Ontario need bold ideas to remain vital.
Did you know that as many people inhabit rural and small town Ontario as live in the City of Toronto? Have you heard as much about their transportation challenges as you have about the folks in Scarborough?
Recently, the Rural Ontario Institute (ROI) published a series of fact sheets to help build understanding of the demographic and economic realities and trends in rural Ontario –areas of the province that otherwise don’t get much “air time” in the national and urban media.
The new Focus on Rural Ontario fact sheets provide demographic and economic information on rural Ontario. Each of the fact sheets has a specific theme: for example, one looks at which rural areas will soon have more retirees than young entrants to the labour force while another highlights how the non-metro economy has recently been shrinking while urban Ontario has been recovering. All Focus on Rural Ontario fact sheets can be read or downloaded here: http://bit.ly/focusonruralontario
This analysis of Statistics Canada data was done by ROI to increase access to information by the many rural stakeholders who don’t have the capacity to perform such analysis for themselves. These fact sheets will help paint the back drop so the many organizations in rural Ontario can tell their own story.
Many of us work in non-profit organizations in small towns and communities outside major urban centres. Like all non-profits, we have mandates that make it very important for us to be able tell the story and advocate or build understanding of our causes and missions. We have to be able to explain to policymakers, funders and supporters what assets we have to respond to particular circumstances or issues in specific places and regions. And then be able to make the case about what is more or less urgent given the demographic character of our communities when compared to others. In this we have much in common with non-profits working in neighbourhoods in urban centres who are also looking for place-based solutions and similarly apply community development approaches in their work.
These fact sheets point to several fundamental trends and realities of rural and small town Ontario:
a) the population is older than in urban Ontario; and
b) once you get beyond the fringe of the big cities relatively few recent immigrants settle there.
These pose a significant volunteerism and leadership challenge for non-profits and for civic engagement. The urgency for the sector as whole to deal with the changing dynamic of recruitment, succession and mentorship at the Board and volunteer level is even more acute and critical in rural places. Too many of the same people are called on to do too much of this good work. This is not a new issue but the numbers shown in the Focus on Rural Ontario fact sheets highlight that that the underlying demographic fundamentals are going to continue to drive this concern.
Rural Ontario is already where our broader Canadian society is headed – the proverbial canary in the coal mine. This presents a critical window of opportunity to innovate and serve as a proving ground for effective capacity building programs. Not only does rural and small town Ontario need to try bold ideas now but everyone will need these proven approaches soon. For example, in light of the demographics and wealth transfer that will take place over the next generation, community reinvestment vehicles such as those enables by the Community Development Investment Funds in Nova Scotia are one such innovation we could use sooner rather than later.
Even as our social service and community benefit organizations struggle to renew their leadership and find new resources through social entrepreneurship, the relative social isolation of rural residents exacerbates the impacts of the broader social determinants of health among the rural population. Rural Ontarians have poorer health outcomes. This is a double whammy. With youth out migration and fewer newcomers to counteract the aging pattern in rural and small town Ontario we are doubly challenged to maintain vital communities. The need is higher and the ability to meet the need is lower. Can our society as a whole afford to let the public infrastructure in our small towns be shuttered and become under-utilized even while our major cities struggle to find the dollars for public transit to combat congestion? Isn’t there a better win-win solution here?
It is clear from the statistics why so many rural and small town stakeholders are collaborating within their regions to become welcoming communities so skilled newcomers can integrate more easily. It is also clear why stakeholders want to improve youth return rates post-graduation and why they are concerned that community colleges in their region actually offer the kinds of programs related to the key sectors in their local economies – it is imperative that they give their youth the chance to succeed without leaving forever. There are many promising programs that respond to these issues in specific regions and we could do more to provide resources so these successful models can be adapted and transferred to other parts of the province, such as Places Des Jeunes in eastern Ontario or Health Kick Huron from southwestern Ontario.
The Focus on Rural Ontario fact sheets provide a big picture perspective that make it clear why labour force development is such a priority in some parts of rural Ontario and why county political leaders such as the eastern and western wardens are currently making a strong case for further broadband and transportation investment. These are key infrastructure prerequisites to enable all parts of the province to attract the talent that will both lead our non-profit sector and support the evolution of competitive, innovative enterprise in the diverse rural regions of the province. By providing information and creating awareness of small town and rural Ontario trends, we, at the Rural Ontario Institute hope that more informed debate will occur among policy and decision makers and will help those advocating for programs and services to enhance the vitality of small town and rural Ontario to have a receptive audience for their messages.
The Rural Ontario Institute has received a lot of positive feedback from diverse public and non-profit stakeholders about the value of the information and their intentions to share it. We would love to hear your thoughts on the fact sheets, if and how you’ll use the fact sheets, with whom you are sharing the information, and what data you might want to see in any future series. Please send me an email Attn: firstname.lastname@example.org
This blog appeared on Ontario Trillium Foundation, Sector in Conversation http://www.scribd.com/doc/167634725/Why-Focus-on-Rural-Ontario