Rural Canada deserves prime minister's attention

First published:
Sept 25, 2002

As Prime Minister Jean Chretien prepares his upcoming throne speech, there is a strong lobby from cities trying to get the government’s attention. With the massive downloading of costs and services on to the back of local government, politicians are anxious to find ways to sustain themselves.
Toronto is being particularly vocal. Faced with a crisis in a number of key areas such as transportation, roads, water treatment, garbage, public transit and a rising population, the situation is critical. The traditional source of revenue is property taxes. But a succession of municipal budgets with little or no tax increases have left Mayor Mel Lastman and city council scrambling for ways to raise revenue.
The city is also caught in a historic relationship with the provincial government, which leaves it seeking approval for many of municipal programs.
It appears pressure from municipal leaders, the Toronto business community and the media may have found a target. Add to this, former Finance Minister Paul Martin’s recent comments over the past six months calling for a new deal for cities, the insiders on Parliament Hill are speculating an announcement is at hand.
But hold on a minute.
Before making any changes, Chretien needs to reconsider his government’s position. There is no arguing cities need a new deal, but let’s not forget rural Canada. Places like Northumberland County cannot be left out of any vision for the revitalization of municipalities. To do this would be a critical mistake. It will be like putting a Band-Aid on a wound that needs stitches.
Rural economies must be treated equally. Otherwise people are forced to go into urban areas to find decent jobs and make good wages. Rural municipalities are left to pick up the leftovers. It is as if the rural area is simply a branch plant of the large urban centre like Toronto. We need to build a balanced economy.
Just take a close look at the type of development going on in Northumberland. Senior’s housing is the order of the day. Subdivisions for families are rare. Affordable housing is non-existent.
But there is also a frightening trend in the type of businesses that are opening. Not only are oversized box stores suddenly springing up, but also there are fewer and fewer independent businesses. Places like Susan Dewhurst’s dress shop or Paul Leonard’s jewelry store are stalwarts. Others like All Creatures Great and Small pet supply store and others face numerous hurdles to survive against franchises.
Look carefully at the number of franchises in our community. This is not just about Wal-Mart, but the growing number of much smaller businesses that are part of larger corporations, including restaurants, retailers, investment brokers, real estate firms, among others.
There are many advantages to opening a franchise, such as buying power and brand recognition. There can be some decided advantages, like in real estate where a home is listed for sale that can be seen by potential buyers across a national chain. These are also local people who own and operate these franchises. But it also means a portion of profits are leaving the community. In some of the worst cases, the business owners also give up their independence and are forced to follow policies, which may not reflect the best interests of the local economy.
What is needed is homegrown economics. In the United States there is a growing movement called the American Independent Business Alliance. For example, in Boulder, Colorado, 150 locally-owned businesses banded together to stop a takeover of out-of town chains. Studies have shown locally owned businesses recycle a higher percentage of their revenue and profits back into the local economy compared to the franchise chains.
Some local businesses reward customers by offering frequent buyer/customer discounts, similar to those horrid plastic cards we swipe for collecting points.
Another example is a Minneapolis group that introduced the Community Hero Card, which promotes local businesses while rewarding community volunteers and non-profit groups. Volunteers get a discount on merchandise from participating neighborhood businesses and a portion of the sales help fund local non-profits.
The citizenry also needs to become involved. We must support shop local activities. Peer pressure is an important aspect. We need to educate each other about how important spending money at a local independent business is to the community by keeping dollars in Northumberland. Charities, sports clubs, non-profit organizations and service clubs need to get behind this kind of activity. They benefit from a vibrant, strong local economy since donations come from these people.
Municipalities can do more. Economic development strategies can support local enterprises and discourage sprawling development and big box stores. The federal government should also support revitalization efforts such as microloans for new, independently owned businesses. Public policy needs to favor these entrepreneurs.
Self-reliance was a quality of the people who settle Northumberland County, this province, this country. We can remember the people and personalities of the great business owners of the past. There are many that follow in their footsteps. We should be able to help them operate local businesses rooted in our community, not caught in the tentacles of head offices located in large urban centres like Toronto.
If Chretien is serious about helping Canadians, then he should definitely take action to assist Toronto and other major municipalities. But don’t forget rural Canada. It needs just as much attention and innovation. Don’t forget Northumberland.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.