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Selling out rural Canada

Most of us are familiar with the basic facts of Canada's population and geography. We proudly refer to being the second largest country in the world and one of the least densely populated. This is not news. Nor is the trend toward urbanization a new idea, with well over 80 per cent of Canadians now living in cities.

What receives less attention is the effect of this reality on rural Canada. As every year passes, more and more people are forced to leave home looking for work elsewhere. Rural communities are hollowing out.

Sadly, successive governments have also failed to take notice.

The Liberals truly didn't seem to care about rural Canada. As has been well documented, their failure to understand rural lifestyles or even consult with people outside of cities was a big factor in the negative response to the long gun registry. Downloading during the Chretien and Martin years put a huge strain on the quality of services. This put more and more pressure on smaller communities that simply did not have the means to pick up the slack. That led to infrastructure challenges that, in turn, hurt local industry and cycled into the loss of more jobs. They essentially abandoned rural Canada and paid the price at the ballot box.

In response, we saw the rise of the Reform Party and the Harper Conservatives. They at least pretended to listen. They paid lip service to the concerns of rural Canadians, making a lot of noise about a few hot-button social issues, but none of that helped to put food on the table in rural Canada or to put the food that rural Canada produces on tables around the country. It is more than ironic that while Canada's rural communities struggle, Stephen Harper, whose focus on rural votes put him in office, is only hurrying the hollowing out process along.

The Conservatives and Liberals have always shared one concern: that of large multi-national corporations. The beneficiary of the softwood lumber agreement was not the Canadian forestry worker: it was our international competition. The largest beneficiary of the ending of the wheat board is not the family farmer: it is agribusiness giants like Viterra and Cargill. The largest beneficiary of pipeline projects like Keystone KL that ship raw bitumen out of Canada is not the average worker in Canada's oil patch: it is international oil companies who would reap the benefits while leaving us with the environmental bill to pay.

Because of policies like these, rural Canada has lost tens of thousands of well-paying jobs, some single-industry towns have been mortally wounded, and more is on the way. The recent assault on the wheat board is just part of the Conservative attack on the small farmer. In Asia this week, Stephen Harper let slip his plans to undermine dairy and egg farmers as well. They too are showing how little they care about the communities who depend on farming and resource-based industries.

The fact is that the Conservatives have sold people a phony bill of goods. They have exploited divisions between urban and rural Canada for political gain without regard to the economic, social and environmental costs.

As Member of Parliament for a large rural riding, I see examples every day of how supporting rural communities can benefit all Canadians. In my years with the Grand Council of the Crees, the agreements I helped to negotiate with government and business created prosperity for my region, protected the environment for future generations and benefitted urban communities all at the same time. A balance can be struck for the common good.

To do that, we need to understand that one-size does not fit all.

Small farms need flexibility in order to compete. Health regulations built for factory farms don't work for small organic producers.

We need to create local, sustainable jobs by supporting new entrepreneurs, the creative economy and eco-tourism. That means keeping resources here through value-added production and protecting the local environment on which these industries thrive.

We must understand that downloading punishes rural municipalities with small tax bases and we need to re-balance that fiscal unfairness to provide the services and infrastructure rural communities need.

We can help rural communities rebuild by returning the benefits our generous geography provides to the people who live there. That growth will in turn benefit the country as a whole.

Unlike Stephen Harper, I'm not going to tell people that government is the problem. But I don't believe that government is the entire solution either. I understand that local communities are best placed to determine their own needs and it is up to us to work together as Canadians, urban and rural, to everyone's benefit.

We must fight this battle together, not only for the survival of rural Canada, but for our mutual prosperity as a nation.

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