Debora Van Brenk, QMI Agency
Sunday, October 20, 2013 6:00:00 EDT AM
FLORENCE, ONT. – It’s high noon on an autumn day and the loudest sounds are the ratcheting of crickets and the occasional call of an in-town rooster crowing out of time.
A shiny new playground and a community hall sit in the middle of Florence, empty this time of day, and there’s a road so freshly paved the centre line isn’t yet laid down.
Florence — part of the southwestern Ontario township of Dawn-Euphemia, where Middlesex, Kent and Lambton counties meet — is at the intersection of everything, but far from the centre of the universe.
Once within buggy distance of eight schools and home to a tractor dealership and other amenities, the township has lost 17% of its small population in the past decade.
“Welcome to Hooterville,” seed dealer-farmer Emery Huszka quips.
But it’s clear he’s convinced this place is Canada’s heartland — not its hinterland: High-speed Internet, clean water, resourceful workforce, close to major centres, helpful neighbours. And all the tranquility a body needs.
That’s why it troubles him the hamlet where he lives and works is — like many rural Ontario communities — shrinking. The statistics of the migration are mere numbers to some, but to him are the 360 faces of his friends.
“One factory in a city like Mississauga is just a blip. One factory here, if it closes, is the difference between getting your mortgage paid or not,” Huszka says.
And he knows this first-hand, having been on the receiving end of more than one factory closing where he worked.
In this area, deep in the heart of one of the nation’s richest farm belts, but with manufacturing cities nearby, the closing of a Navistar truck plant and the loss of thousands of other industrial jobs have cost the community dearly.
“The rural communities are more economical to live in, provided you don’t have to drive 40 miles to your job,” says Dawn-Euphemia Mayor Bill Bilton, who was born and raised in the township and has been its reeve or mayor, and always its biggest booster, for 30 years.
Out here, you can grow your own gardens, canoe on the river, borrow a library book, buy lumber and know everyone by name, occupation and lineage. Out here you can get your milk, mail, meal and movies at one location.
But what you can’t do in Florence is attend school (the decrepit high school has been for sale, now listed at $17,500, almost since it closed down in 1965), be doctored (the lone physician moved out years ago) or buy much more than the essentials.
“If there are no jobs, there are no young families — it’s that simple,” Bilton notes.
That’s a trend echoed across the province, including in Elizabethtown-Kitley stretching between the borders of Brockville and Smiths Falls in Eastern Ontario.
Plant closings in both cities have squeezed out rural residents who lived in the country but worked in the city, says Mayor Jim Pickard. “When jobs start drying up, people start to move … One thing you cannot fight is job losses and aging.”
Teens leave for college and don’t come back. Couples lose jobs and pack out. Older people move to where the health care is.
“I’m sure we’re reflective of so many other municipalities,” Pickard says. “There’s no one thing to put your finger on.”
To be sure, not all rural communities are faltering.
Nearer to major centres — to the GTA and Ottawa, for example — so many people are clamouring to live in the countryside many hamlets have grown into full-fledged towns. In those areas with double-digit annual growth (Whitchurch-Stouffville’s population has ballooned 54% in five years), politicians rightly struggle to pave roads, build clinics and schools to transport, heal and educate everyone.
But in a province that’s grown an average 5% during the past five years, to show neither population gain nor loss is to fall behind.
“If I had the magic solution, I’d bottle it and sell it and it would cost you a lot of money,” Pickard says.
Some trends aren’t reversible, such as smaller families and larger, more mechanized farms that mean fewer people need to work the land.
But Huszka, for one, believes the exodus has bottomed out. Technology is allowing more people to telecommute. And land affordability in a hamlet, even with gas prices factored into the commute, make it an affordable choice.
He holds out hope agricultural diversification and sound economic policy can reap ten-fold returns on a modest investment: a beet processor nearby or a biofuels plant, for example.
Adding just 25 couples — 50 people — could revive church suppers, bring in more taxes, fill a day-care centre. Revive the heart of Ontario.
“It wouldn’t take a lot to make a big difference here,” he says.
BY THE NUMBERS
2006 to 2011:
— Canada’s population grew 5.9%
— Ontario’s population grew 5.7%
Examples, 2006 to 2011:
Lambton Shores: -4.4%
Examples, 2006 to 2011:
What went wrong with rural Ontario
Rural demography is about as tough to get a grip on as mutton-busting at the country fall fair.
And framing the reasons for rural population decline as either all good or all bad is just as slippery.
It’s a whole new landscape out there. The 19th-century farm is gone, for better and for worse. As the think-tank Rural Ontario Institute notes, non-metro Ontario had virtually no year-over-year population growth from 2006 to 2012.
So, while the issues itemized below look like a linear list, they’re more like the Venn diagrams you drew in elementary school, with interlooping circles of influence and infinity-echoing patterns of cause-and-effect.
Cows virtually milk themselves now and house-sized combines harvest corn. There’s more need for knowledge and less for people on today’s larger, more technologically advanced farms. Young would-be farmers have a tough time coming up with money to enter the business.
Good roads go both ways. But for rural communities, they’re often outbound to enrich big-town coffers, where a 20-minute drive and $20 gets you a burger and a movie. A lot of the money that could help small centres grow flows into larger ones.
Rural routes are littered with old schools converted to houses or storage sheds. Populations shrink and schools close, leading more families to leave and fewer to move in if there are no schools.
So many rural people have jobs in cities that an economic downturn in industry makes country living financially impossible. And if the only job they can find is minimum wage, they’re not going to commute two hours a day for that.
Older rural residents often resist moving to town — but as their health fails, they often have to move out to be closer to health clinics.
Most immigrants go to cities, drawn by a similar population or language. One saving grace? Western European farmers with plenty of money and large families are rebuilding some rural economies.
Some rural places still lack high-speed Internet. Try studying, shopping or just surfing without that. Conversely, rural entrepreneurs with high-speed Internet can stay put, with access to markets worldwide.
They dwindle as hamlets wane. The service club or church may close. The softball league becomes a single team, then strikes out altogether.
How to keep rural Ontario thriving
In one Ontario hamlet, where school enrolment was falling, boosters decided to reverse the flow.
Instead of busing their kids to city schools, they held up the smaller rural school as an example of educational excellence — then, city kids started busing to the country for school.
Promoting small-town amenities to cities is among the revitalization strategies Bill Reimer likes to cite when talking with struggling rural areas.
Reimer, a professor at Concordia University, is one of North America’s foremost experts on rural economies.
His six broad suggestions for helping rural areas reassert their importance:
Look beyond your community:
In one Western Canadian town, it was pumping up the local hockey program so that now the hockey school is sought out beyond the region.
Find and exploit your niche:
Maybe it’s a social event or a cultural landmark or maybe an idea that’s unique to that area. Stratford has made that work with world-class theatre.
Create a rural welcome wagon of sorts, and make sure newcomers know where to find social supports.
Build social infrastructure.
Book clubs, church communities, little league baseball teams — and make them too good to ignore.
Build capacities and links:
Labour should connect with charity and recreation and so on, to make it a better place.
There’s a huge power differential between small and large communities; independence is often a catchphrase of rural life, but interdependence should be more important. When their main products, such as food or raw resources come from the rural areas, urban areas are defeating their own self-interest to ignore or downplay the economic, lifestyle and environmental benefits they get from rural areas. “It is in the interests of urban people to figure out how to support their smaller communties,” Reimer said.