Expanded internet access, solving rural labour issues along with rural infrastructure problems are priorities for the new chair of the Liberal rural caucus.
Francis Drouin, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Glengarry-Prescott-Russell in eastern Ontario was recently elected by the 50 members of the Liberal rural caucus as its chair, replacing TJ Harvey, an MP from New Brunswick.
Why it matters: A government’s rural caucus has historically had varying influence on government policy, but they are one of the few direct lines from rural areas to setters of government policy.
“The digital divide is something that unites us all across rural Canada. Providers seem to not be able to keep up with consumer demands,” Drouin said in an interview.
Investments are important, he says, but there’s a need to examine the regulations of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to see what barriers could be holding back private sector investment in supplying broadband internet to rural areas.
The Liberal government has committed $750 million to enhance rural broadband access. The first round aims to fund projects that hit 25 mbps download and five mbps upload speed — half of the original speed goal.
Labour, trades and immigrants
Drouin says he hears every day that more workers are needed for rural small businesses and farms.
“If you go back 100 years, 90 per cent of Canadians lived in rural areas, now children go to universities and colleges and they are not coming back to where they used to live. There’s a bit of a rural renaissance, but we need to make agriculture sexy,” he said.
The need for programmers and coders and people to service the new technology arriving on farms will also be key.
Being able to supply enough skilled tradespeople to fill demand is also important, said Drouin. Farmers need to have similar access as urban residents to skilled trades to finish projects like building a new barn, he said.
Some of the answer could be in immigration. The federal government launched a new program on Jan. 24, looking for rural communities in Western Canada, Ontario and the territories to be part of a five-year Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot which will give those communities resources to help support newcomers. An Atlantic Immigration Pilot is already running, having launched in 2017.
Larger cities have the resources to integrate immigrants, says Drouin, but rural areas do not yet.
Infrastructure key to reaching agri-food trade goals
There are several areas where infrastructure improvement will be an important driver of future rural Canadian economic development.
Drouin says he knows that access to natural gas is a priority for rural Ontario, but also adds that to meet ambitious export goals in agriculture and food, products have to get efficiently to market. That’s especially important to western Canadian agriculture and rail service, but also the maintenance of the St. Lawrence Seaway as a major route to global markets for products from Eastern Canada.
The Liberals were elected overwhelmingly from Canadian cities and suburbs. That makes it challenging for the voice of rural Canada to break through.
Drouin said that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has his ears open and an example is the recently appointed new minister for rural economic development, Bernadette Jordan.
Another part of his job is talking to his fellow urban MPs about what is really happening in rural areas and on farms. He says the rural MPs remind Finance Minister Bill Morneau that his downtown Toronto riding is the size of one farm.
He gets questions from MPs who have been targeted with information campaigns by animal rights activists.
“For me, I see my part of the job as educating urban colleagues about where food comes form. Farmers do treat their animals well,” he said.