Building a better Canada post-pandemic requires emergency funding for municipalities and a commitment to universal broadband to close the rural gap.

As the Rural Forum Chair with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), I’ve seen first-hand how rural communities have shaped Canada’s pandemic response. I’ve seen them protect frontline services and take extraordinary steps to keep people safe. Canton De Gore, Que., set up a home-delivery service for vulnerable residents. In northern B.C., Fort St. John kept roadside restaurants open so truckers could take a break. The examples are endless – each one a story of local leaders seeing what people need and then responding.

Municipal leaders envision a Canada that’s more sustainable and resilient to the next big shock, as we continue to deal with the pandemic response with an eye to recovery. We envision a better connected, more prosperous and inclusive Canada where everyone has opportunities to thrive. As the governments closest to daily life, our frontline expertise will be essential to turning broad national objectives into results on the ground. That includes Canada’s rural communities.

Right now, the efforts of our municipalities – big and small – to meet the needs of their communities, coupled with plummeting municipal revenues, have pushed them to the brink of financial crisis. By heeding FCM’s urgent call for emergency funding with $8.6 billion in municipal support through the “safe restart” agreements, our federal and provincial partners have shown they understand: municipalities will be indispensable to getting this country back on its feet.

Meanwhile, in many rural communities, independent businesses that are the lifeblood of our communities are at risk of shutting down. Industries like agriculture and tourism that support rural economies have suffered losses. At the height of the shutdown, Canada had lost nearly one-million tourism jobs. Ensuring rural communities rebound and thrive in the wake of COVID-19 is critical – not just for the 10 million Canadians who call our communities home, but also for this entire country’s economic recovery.

Applying a rural lens to Canadas recovery

Rural Canada generates nearly 30 percent of Canada’s GDP and provides the resources that fuel urban centres. Before the pandemic, rural communities created jobs and growth in a wide range of sectors — from forestry to manufacturing to health care. Like all municipalities, we’re already tackling this country’s biggest challenges with the outdated tools available to us.

Rural communities also face unique challenges — from geography to climate to demographics – that resist cookie-cutter solutions. That’s why FCM and its Rural Forum are calling on the federal government to apply a “rural lens” to Canada’s recovery. That includes adapting funding criteria and processes to account for local needs. More fundamentally, it means bringing rural realities and expertise to the table more often when Canada’s recovery plan is developed.

After months of isolation, people want us to build a Canada that’s more inclusive and better connected. Start with fixing this country’s glaring digital divide.

COVID-19 forced millions online for work, school and social connection. Yet that simply wasn’t an option for many rural communities. Two million Canadians still can’t access a reliable Internet connection. According to the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, in July alone, rural download speeds were 10 times slower than in urban centres.

FCM has been working with Ottawa to change this, and we’re making progress. The 2019 federal budget and the recent Speech to the Throne made a significant commitment to universal broadband and to closing the rural gap faster. A national recovery plan needs to prioritize progress on the ground. High-speed Internet is essential to today’s economy and quality of life, and it is key to unlocking rural potential.

Take the agricultural sector, for example. With more and more producers relying on cloud platforms, GPS and real-time data, reliable broadband is a must for competing in the global marketplace.

Creating rural opportunity and prosperity

Closing the digital divide is just the first (and most literal) part of better connecting Canadians through the upcoming recovery. Even before COVID-19, too many people said they were feeling disconnected and unheard. As we set out on a path to recovery, every Canadian should feel part of the future we’re building.

For rural Canada, that means expanding economic opportunity. Rural municipalities are already actively engaged in local economic development. The federal government can support this work by strengthening regional economic development agencies so rural leaders have the tools to attract and retain talent, support local businesses and diversify local economies.

Sustained growth requires strong rural infrastructure as well. Rural leaders are already using Budget 2019’s one-time doubling of the Gas Tax Fund transfer for critical upgrades to roads, bridges and water systems. Scaling up this proven direct funding model would further strengthen the infrastructure many rural municipalities provide, like recreation facilities or regional bus services, allowing rural Canadians to participate more fully in our economy.

Recovering from the economic impact of COVID-19 also presents a historic opportunity to tackle another global crisis: climate change. Municipalities of all sizes are already on the forefront of climate innovation. Across the country, rural governments are taking concrete action to retrofit municipal buildings, cut green-house-gas emissions and build more climate-resilient communities.

Scaling up the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund (DMAF) is one way to support this local leadership. Since 2018, DMAF has empowered us to build more climate-resilient communities including the implementation of flood mitigation strategies and wildfire prevention. But its $20-million minimum threshold leaves too many rural projects ineligible. Growing the fund and dropping this barrier would drive job creation and help more communities prepare for extreme weather events.

On emissions reductions, there are real opportunities for rural communities as well, including low-carbon transportation and technological innovation in the energy and agriculture sectors. The transition we need to make as a country towards net-zero GHG emission by the middle of the century will be an enormous challenge, and we’ll have to be mindful of local economic impacts in energy-producing regions.

In Alberta alone, 40 percent of the rural property tax base comes from the energy sector. So, as we move to reduce GHG emissions nationwide, we will have to work just as hard to ensure long-term economic opportunity for all communities.

These past months have compelled us all to reflect on what really matters, and on the kind of Canada we want for our children. They have also shown what we’re truly capable of  – when we work together. Across the country, we saw neighbours, communities and governments come together like never before to protect one another, and to lift each other up.

That spirit must guide our recovery. Building a better Canada out of this pandemic is going to take unprecedented collaboration among all orders of government, with municipalities of all sizes directly at the table. Rural leaders are ready to work as partners with the rest of Canada. We’re ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work, just as we always do. Because we’re still in this together.

This article is part of the Tackling inequality as part of Canada’s post-pandemic recovery special feature.

Photo: A farmer harvests her hay on a farm near Cremona, Alta., on Aug. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh