LETTER FROM ONTARIO
Distinctive Local Communities

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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November 7 , 2003: The Ontario Rural Council held its sixth annual rural development conference last week. Once again it drew a wonderful mix of folks with a heart for the future of our countryside.

Speakers and workshop leaders challenged us. Robert Fulford, former editor of Saturday Night magazine, reflected on our perceptions of rural and urban: "City moves on; rural stays put. Cities offer endless surprises. They change everything without asking your permission. Rural and small towns provide consistency, permanency."

Beyond perception, there was opportunity to ponder difficult questions: "Is it true that urban interests are shaping the future of the countryside?" We explored the tensions that exist between urban and rural and within our rural communities. I came away wondering if the difference between urban and rural communities is often overstated.

We have big issues in common. Consider globalization. It's the mobility of goods, services, labour, technology and capital throughout the world. It's the freedom to travel or to surf the Net. It's the emergence of a cultural bazaar, a blurring of the difference between domestic and foreign. Globalization has arrived in our cities, our towns, our villages and our countryside. Finding our way in the midst of globalization is a challenge for rural and urban alike.

Stronger local communities can help balance the impact of the trend to global. Exciting urban neighbourhoods and vibrant countryside villages can provide a rootedness that steadies us in the face of change. We, urban and rural, have much to learn about developing and maintaining distinctive local communities.

How we get there:

1. Enabling community is about the right kind of infrastructure and polices - not about political boundaries. I'm a fan of most of the recent municipal amalgamations across Ontario. The synergies and critical mass created by larger municipalities creates the possibility of establishing a focus on local community development.

2. Communities need to emphasize their uniqueness. Much of rural Ontario is emerging out of dependence on provincial cost sharing - roads upgraded and bridges repaired only when provincial grants were available. Rural development followed a cookie-cutter pattern. If you visited one rural village, you had seen them all.

3. Local communities need more financial resources. Downloading responsibilities to municipalities has been a troubling experience. Adequate financial resources did not come with the new responsibilities. But the concept of enabling municipalities to set their own priorities is a necessary step to stronger and distinct local communities. Talk of a new deal for our cities needs to be translated into a new financial deal for all municipalities. It is not just Toronto that needs resources for local community development.

Distinctive local communities enable us to embrace the global.

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