When it comes to access to services such as healthcare, justice, education and housing, things are different in rural Alberta. But before I go into that, I should define what I mean by rural Alberta. There is no single definition; however, ARDN tends to focus on communities with a population of less than 30,000, and this seems like a reasonable option. Communities with less than 30,000 residents include all but the ten largest centres, meaning there are 1,308,795 rural Albertans – that is, 1 out of every 3 Albertans. And contrary to popular belief, this number is increasing, not decreasing; it’s just not growing at the same rate as urban populations. And yet, there does not appear to be a cohesive provincial strategy for rural Alberta. Rural development has disappeared entirely from the name of any government Ministry (it used to be the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, which is now Agriculture and Forestry). You may be surprised to learn that I welcome this change; rural development encompasses so many Ministries that to lump it in with Agriculture seems limited and misleading.
To best address rural issues, Alberta could have a whole Ministry, or at least a Secretariat, devoted to Rural Affairs. Alberta needs leadership at the government level to create a comprehensive cross-Ministry plan for rural Alberta. This plan must tackle everything from the aforementioned access to healthcare, justice, education and housing, but also emerging issues, such as business retention and expansion, homelessness, youth retention, and ageing in place. It must set the stage for success in rural communities, identify the challenges and opportunities, and create clear pathways to success. It must help coordinate efforts and provide access to adequate tools and resources (like urban dwellers have). In my estimation, every dollar spent in a rural community has far more impact than that same dollar spent in a large city. New investment in urban centres can yield only incremental results, because governments are already heavily invested there. On the contrary, even small new investments in rural communities can reap huge dividends, because mostly there is so much room for improvement, and our rural citizens know how to do a lot with a little.
Some work is being done to help ensure adequate infrastructure is available in rural communities, but who is supporting the more intangible, but still critical element needed for success: the social capital? Who is helping community champions articulate their vision and find and access the resources they need to implement the ideas that are going to make their communities grow and thrive? Who is helping to ensure these community leaders even know about the opportunities that exist? Who is facilitating the measures and long-range plans that will bring about the conditions needed to have the critical mass of businesses, of professionals, of youth to make possible their long-term success? Who is looking at the big picture and making sure that adequate resources are available and being utilized?
When leadership emerges, replete with a plan to mobilize rural Alberta’s social capital, the result will be a collective, united, systematic effort by well-focussed community stakeholders. The future of Alberta’s rural communities will no longer be left to chance.