LETTER FROM ONTARIO
In the shadow of a new deal for cities

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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December 23, 2003: "Cities, both large and small, are the engines of our economic growth and central to our quality of life." Paul Martin told reporters last week after being sworn in as Prime Minister. Martin, who promised to personally take charge of the cities file, has created a cities secretariat within the Privy Council Office. Toronto MP John Godfrey was appointed as parliamentary secretary for cities, and Mike Harcourt, a former premier of British Columbia and mayor of Vancouver, is now chair of an advisory committee to develop a practical game plan for helping cities.

A new deal for cities is great news for city-dwellers -- eighty percent of Canadians. It could be good news for the other twenty percent who have chosen small towns, villages and countryside. Much depends on design. Will a new deal fund still more urban sprawl fraught with high infrastructure costs, or will it initiate a fresh vision for livable cities with dynamic neighborhoods? Will a new deal be all about competitiveness in global economic markets or will our advantage be vibrant neighborhoods, from which we reach out to the four corners of our world? Will a new deal recognize our wrap-around countryside as an indispensable component of livable cities?

Also last week, a University of Guelph seminar on sustainable rural communities showcased some of the daunting challenges facing Ontario's rural municipalities. During the past decade amalgamations have erased the boundaries of 500 local municipalities. The communities affected must learn to define themselves without political boundaries. Obligations to provide local services for residents have increased dramatically. Water services alone now require record keeping and accountability standards that make it mandatory for municipal employees to function at a new level of sophistication. Much of our rural infrastructure - roads, bridges, and public buildings - completed in the 60s and 70s, is becoming a maintenance money pit.

In seeking to reinvent themselves, rural municipalities face a dilemma. They lack the resources to do the job right--revenue is still limited to property taxes, business taxes, license fees and development charges. Many countryside developments, like scattered estate lots, cost more to service than they contribute to municipal coffers. Without a new deal, rural municipalities risk serious deterioration in services.

Communities in the United States have access to half a dozen revenue streams denied Canadian municipalities. In 1996, U. S. municipalities spent $1,652 dollars per citizen. Canadian municipalities spent just $785 per person.

Prime Minister Martin is right to rethink the arrangements for our big cities but he must not stop there. All our municipalities need new options so that, from their homes, Canadians everywhere can be citizens of the world.

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The Seminar on the Sustainable Rural Communities Research Program included presentations on:

  • Managing Rural Communities in the New Millennium by John Fitzgibbon, University of Guelph.
  • A Framework for Innovative Communities by Elinor Humphries, Alpha Projects, one of the collaborators in this research. The project has a website at: www.innovativecommunities.ca.
  • Rural Automobile Parts Plants and Community Sustainability by Belinda Leach, University of Guelph.

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