U of S professor says small towns need to save themselves

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WATCH ABOVE: Many small towns sprung up around Saskatchewan at the turn of the 20th century.

University of Saskatchewan Prof. Ken Coates said small towns must reinvent themselves to attract new residents and businesses, or fail. He said the loss of vibrant rural communities would reduce Canada’s innovation and increase political fragmentation.

“We should have been concerned about small, rural Saskatchewan towns 25 years ago,” he said.

“We’ve been closing those towns down left, right and centre.”

Coates, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation, spoke at the Saskatoon chapter of the Canadian International Council on Monday evening. His talk, entitled “Do the ‘People Who Don’t Matter’ Have a Future: Prospects and Possibilities for Rural and Small Town Peoples,” highlighted the challenges faced by people in rural areas.

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Fewer Canadians are living in rural areas and more are moving to urban centres, according to data from Statistics Canada. Coates said social realities and technological innovations are causing the exodus.

Young Canadians want to live and work in cities because there are more amenities and more people. And, he said, there are also fewer jobs in rural areas because many roles have been automated.

The changes in address have political consequences. Rural Canadians, Coates said, are feeling disconnected.

“Politics is becoming more urban, it’s becoming more multicultural,” Coates told Global News.

“So, people who are, what Stephen Harper used to call the ‘old stock Canadians,’ or their equivalents in other places, are feeling left behind. The country is changing, the economy is changing, the future looks very uncertain at best.”

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Coates said the disconnection leads to political fragmentation and disruption. He pointed to the Republican Party and the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the support for Brexit in the United Kingdom. The support for both come from rural areas.

He also pointed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Liberal Party was re-elected, albeit as a minority government, by winning ridings in the country’s major urban centres and the Maritimes and no seats in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

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He said a political party — any political party — that forms government without representation from all sections of society doesn’t have a complete understanding of the country.

“We’re talking about Canada’s economic future, about the use of technology, about education, about healthcare. If you don’t have these people from these small towns and rural areas represented in government and being heard by government they’re going to come up with policies that actually accelerate the process rather than sustaining it.”

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He said small towns will need to find their own ways to attract new residents and businesses, perhaps as tourist sites or athletic hubs for activities like snowmobiling and quad rallies. Not all towns are at risk because some will have economic engines, like mining, for many more years, but not all towns can be saved.

The rural communities are worth saving, he said, because they have contributed so much to Canada.

“We need to have those small towns because they are part of our historic fabric… from the CCF/NDP, from the Saskatchewan Party, that really came up from these small towns, people have different views about how the world should develop and the kind of society they want. We need that human diversity.”