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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Picturesque rural poverty

In today's National Post, musician Hawksley Workman laments the economic development of his beloved Muskoka cottage country. His complaint is an example of an irritating attitude that a lot of urban people have when they visit the quaint countryside; they like it picturesque and poor. Some of us who actually live out here beg to differ.

Mr. Workman reminisces about the good old days in Huntsville, Ontario:

"I remember going to Mc-Donald's when it opened with my grandmother in 1981," he said. "That was the beginning of the commercial boom, of wetlands being paved over for malls and golf courses. When I was kid, people came up to Muskoka for the quiet and to put up your feet and read a book. Now, the motivations to be up there are a lot different. The beauty is quickly fading into it becoming just another urban outpost."

Indeed, the Canadian Tire that the musician sent his friends to visit is located in a mall with a lake view. While Huntsville's main street still boasts a vintage ice cream par-lour, the edges of the town are clotted with drive-throughs and discount stores.

Mr. Workman himself now lives just outside Burks Falls, a town located 25 minutes north of Huntsville. The town has a cafe located in a defunct hydroelectric generating station and a few gift stores, but none on the sprawl that has consumed Muskoka's larger communities. Burks Falls is so small, it has a machine gun in the town park instead of a full-sized cannon.

Mr. Workman is lucky that his career as a musician allows him the luxury of being self-employed in a tiny rural community. Most rural residents don't have that option. Consider this report on rural poverty by the federal government's "Canadian Rural Partnership":

Causes of Rural Poverty

Over the last decade rural Canada’s economic and employment situation has had the most profound negative impact on its residents. While variations exist among provinces, when compared to their urban counterparts, rural residents are known to have lower incomes and fewer employment opportunities. These important causes of poverty encourage and sustain persistent rural-to-urban migration.

Although relatively few studies exist to statistically measure the specific causes of rural poverty, generally speaking many of the same factors are likely contributing to both urban and rural poverty. Where there are differences between urban and rural causes, the depth of the problems may be different within each factor. For example, while being poorly educated and without employment are known to contribute to a poverty outcome, regardless of where one lives, the depth of these problems vary by geography. Compared to their urban residents, rural residents tend to have lower education levels, lower levels of literacy, lower incomes, fewer job opportunities, fewer higher paying job opportunities, more seasonal employment, more housing that is in need of repairs, relatively poorer health, and relatively poorer access to health care services

Rural Poverty Outcomes

Some of the impacts of poverty are similar in both rural and urban regions of Canada. These include impacts on education (not doing well in school, and lack of ability to pay for post secondary school, especially university), risk of homelessness, increased need to use food banks, and shorter life expectancies. However, there are some marked differences in impacts of poverty between rural and urban regions.

Poverty in rural areas can lead to a significant out-migration with many residents leaving in search of better employment. Individuals and families leave rural communities to avoid or to escape poverty. As rural areas already have small populations this can have a devastating impact on vital social and health services, which may be forced to close.Many poverty outcomes which include problems associated with attaining quality housing, education and maintaining good health, are also causes of poverty. These intertwined ‘attributes’ of poverty point to a continuous vicious cycle with poverty’s pervasive negative impacts influencing generation after generation of vulnerable population groups including those among rural Canadians.

The "fading beauty" of economic development that is turning places like Huntsville into just another "urban outpost" is actually injecting new life into these communities. For years, rural communities have had few job opportunities for their residents and little economic activity to provide a healthy tax base and support vital infrastructure like hospitals and schools. If they were lucky enough to attract tourists, these towns could scrape out an existence on seasonal jobs that were supported by fickle vacationers. Young people have been fleeing towns like Huntsville for bigger cities for generations just to find employment. Lake views don't employ people; "a mall with a lake view" does.

For the first time some of these rural municipalities are attracting diverse economic activity that can support a vibrant and healthy community. Yes, that means McDonald's restaurants and big box stores that people like Hawksley Workman find so offensive to their artistic sensibilities, but the alternative is turning rural Canada into a vast living-history park where the quaint inhabitants all work for Parks Canada & maintain their old-fashioned folkways for the entertainment of tourists. And if Hawksley Workman wants to help keep Burks Falls free of "the sprawl that has consumed Muskoka's larger communities", he should be living in a condo in downtown Toronto.

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