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Raising Up Rural Ontario

Raising Up Rural Ontario: A Policy Vision

(Cette politique sera bientôt traduite)
(My campaign is releasing separate statements for rural, agriculture, and northern policy visions because I believe that the Ontario Liberal Party should do that in the next election platform)

Rural Ontario plays a vital role in the province's economic and social fabric. Not only does it boast abundant natural resources and picturesque landscapes - its communities are our homes. Small towns, villages, corners and settlements are where 2.8 million Ontarians are going to work, raising families and building community.

In a 2022 ROMA survey, finding and retaining employees was named as the biggest challenge facing businesses in rural Ontario. The scarcity of housing together with a cost of living that is   outpacing salary levels have stunted opportunities for youth and have resulted in an ageing rural demographic. This, in turn, creates a vicious circle of higher costs and lower opportunity. When we think about rural policy, we need to think about measures that enable rural communities to thrive over the long term.

The three biggest things that the Province can do to change this are: 1. improve the availability and the cost of rural housing, 2. make investments in rural  transportation and infrastructure and 3. provide rural Ontarians better access to healthcare. While these challenges are similar to those of our big cities, the longer distances, lower densities, and lower income levels mean that solutions need to be different

The Ontario Liberal Party began as a rural reform party. Too often the focus of recent policy-making has been on areas with more population and greater density. Not only do we need a new and collaborative approach to fulfilling rural Ontario’s potential, we need focus. 

We need rural policies evaluated through a long term community lens. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Increasing Rural Housing Supply
  • Provincial Financing for Community Housing
  • Fast-Track Approvals by Pre-Approving Housing Type and Stock
  • Ensuring Homes are Safe as the Climate Changes

When asked what the most important challenge facing residents of rural Ontario is, availability and the cost of housing is always at or near the top of the list. The reason is obvious: if you can’t find a house in the community you would like to be in, you can’t live and work there.

Access to affordable and quality housing is fundamental to the stability and growth of any community. In rural Ontario, that has become critical, with rising property prices and limited housing options - especially for the short term and rental market. We need to make it easier to increase supply. Housing is expensive to build because of materials and labour. We need to incentivize smaller, more affordable apartments, for instance by levying development charges on a per square foot basis rather than per unit. 

I believe that the provincial government should be helping to finance community housing. Proposals such as the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus plan to build 7000 community housing units in 7 years should be supported by the provincial balance sheet. Rentals are income producing assets and so costs can be recovered over time.  We need to take better advantage of demographic shifts by making it easier for elderly residents to downsize while remaining in their communities. Helping to build senior residences will increase housing supply for families.  

The planning process is often a hurdle in rural areas because of a lack of resources. One compelling solution, currently effective in Kelowna, BC, is to pre-approve the stock and type of available housing. This would fast-track approvals, reducing cost and time for both developer and municipality. To kickstart this, let’s have a province wide design competition for pre-approved building plans that, once accepted, can be licensed. Ontario should also develop a stable of regional municipal planning experts, who can be seconded to smaller municipalities.

Finally we also need to ensure that our homes are safe.  Climate change is bringing with it more and more extreme weather events – fires, floods, tornados, etc. – and more damage to property and infrastructure. The Ford government is dropping the ball on preparing for extreme weather events that will only become more common as climate change accelerates. In 2022, the Auditor General found that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry did not have the resources to adequately plan and prepare for emergencies such as fires and floods. We know that the government's response to helping Eastern Ontario recover from 2022 derechos was slow. I will ensure that the Ministry has the resources it needs to protect Ontarians. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Invest in Rural Infrastructure and Inter-City Transportation
  • Upgrade EV Charging Infrastructure to Help Make EVs in Rural Areas a Reality
  • Build on Existing Programs to Deliver Reliable and Affordable High Speed Internet
  • Reverse Ontario Library Services Cuts to Restore Rural Library Access

While low density and long distances are some of the greatest benefits of living in rural Ontario, they are also some of its biggest challenges. Connectivity is key to thriving rural communities and thriving rural industry. Ontario’s prosperity depends on efficiently moving people, goods, information and energy across our great land mass.

Effective transportation networks are essential to connect rural and urban communities to each other. Investments in rural roads, bridges and in inter-city transportation options are crucial to strengthening the infrastructure that supports local life, commerce and access to services.

We should continue support for custom-designed, successfully piloted, community transportation programs for small rural and underserved areas. Investing in transit regionally will also connect people in rural Ontario with the services only available in larger centres, such as specialized health care.

Electric vehicles will not be a realistic option in rural Ontario until we upgrade the charging infrastructure. A consortium of auto manufacturers recently announced a plan to make this happen. We need to encourage it.  An upgraded electrical grid will be a necessary condition for success. I have a plan for that and you can find it here.

Reliable and affordable high speed internet is crucial to support businesses, remote work and essential services including digital healthcare, government services or online education. I will build on existing programs to build out rural internet, and I will support a fair and competitive environment for Internet Service Providers, large and small, to service rural areas. 

In addition to remote connections, face to face connectivity is also important. In 2019 the Ford government cut the budget of Ontario Library Services by 50 per cent. I would reverse that. Libraries and community centres are not only a resource for information, they also provide gathering places for community groups and businesses to collaborate, exchange ideas, and build community.

Key Takeaways: 

  • Financial Support for the Training, Recruitment and Retention of Staff
  • Leveraging Technology to Provide Virtual Care and Telemedicine
  • Fair Incentives for Mental Health Professionals to Improve Service in Rural, Northern and Underserved Areas

Access to healthcare is crucial for a thriving community. Rural areas often face challenges in attracting and retaining healthcare professionals. Addressing healthcare disparities in rural Ontario is not only a matter of social equity but also essential for ensuring overall well-being, economic success and long-term community viability.

Investing in rural healthcare involves supporting physical facilities, the recruitment and training of staff, and leveraging technology to provide virtual care and telemedicine. In addition to encouraging students from rural and Indigenous communities to pursue healthcare careers, we should create additional financial incentives to work in rural areas or, for those already serving there, incentives to upgrade their skills; 

Mental Health services fall off a cliff as you move away from urban centres. I will offer fair incentives to mental health professionals with a particular emphasis on improving service in rural, northern and other underserved areas.

Investing in rural Ontario communities, with a focus on housing, connectivity, and healthcare, is not only a matter of fairness but also a smart economic move. By nurturing these essential pillars of community development, the province can unlock the full potential of its rural regions, generating economic growth, attracting talent, and promoting sustainability.

The benefits of such investments extend beyond the rural areas themselves. A thriving rural economy contributes to the prosperity of the entire province, creating a more balanced and resilient Ontario. As urban centres continue to grow, strategic investments in rural communities can also help alleviate urban congestion and challenges associated with housing affordability and healthcare accessibility.

Ultimately, a prosperous and equitable Ontario requires a holistic approach to development that recognizes the value and potential of its rural communities. By investing wisely and collaboratively in housing, transportation, and healthcare, Ontario can build a more vibrant and inclusive future for all its residents.