A view of Hudson Bay Mountain Resort and surroundings near Smithers, B.C., on Monday, Sept. 3, 2018. The trail makes for a bracing hike to Crater Lake (unseen). THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel

A view of Hudson Bay Mountain Resort and surroundings near Smithers, B.C., on Monday, Sept. 3, 2018. The trail makes for a bracing hike to Crater Lake (unseen). THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel

COLUMN: Canada needs to remember rural communities as thoughts turn to pandemic recovery

Small towns often rely on tourism, which has been decimated by COVID-19

As the country continues its struggle to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, a challenging accounting is underway. The nation’s unemployment rate is extremely high. The number of permanent small business closures is frightening. Long-established major firms are closing down. The Government of Canada, which responded quickly and effectively to quell financial panic, now has to show it can be as fast and adept at restarting a traumatized economy. In no part of Canada is the reboot more critical – and more uncertain – than in the nation’s rural areas and small towns.

For generations, rural and small-town Canada has been struggling. The sharp decline of many single-industry towns is well-known, as has been the fall off in the country’s agricultural workforce through a combination of technological innovation and the consolidation of farm properties. There has been no shortage of revitalization plans, community empowerment processes, and regional economic development efforts. Some have worked; most have had trouble stemming the flow of young people, families and businesses from these areas. Resilience is a key characteristic of agrarian life and Canada’s many small towns have fought back from economic despair in the past. But this feels different.

Several key forces have already lined up against rural Canada. Technological change has made some rural businesses more competitive, but lowered labour requirements in others. E-commerce and e-services improved the quality of life in remote centres but undercut the business model for many small local firms. The carbon tax hit rural Canada disproportionately hard and is harming already vulnerable operations. In Western Canada, the multiple factors undermining the oil and gas industry have buffeted the many small towns in the region. Pre-COVID, in a world increasingly dominated by city-state economies, rural and small-town Canada was already experiencing serious difficulties.

READ MORE: B.C.’s essential grocery, hardware store employees should get pandemic pay: retail group

Even before the COVID-19 crisis hit, rural, blue-collar, and small-town Canada was already facing poorer outcomes than urban and white-collar Canada. As explained in a 2019 MLI report by Sean Speer titled Forgotten People and Forgotten Places: Canada’s Economic Performance in the Age of Populism, where a Canadian lives and the nature of their work was already a major determinant of economic success long before the pandemic. These divergent economic outcomes are all but certain to worsen in the Post-COVID world.

Canada now find itself in a midst of a deep economic meltdown. The country has many high priorities, from protecting and revitalizing Indigenous communities to supporting fishing villages on the East Coast. It needs to restart and expand the manufacturing sector, decide if it wants to revitalize the oil and gas sector, and try to revive retail, service and restaurant companies. The challenges facing rural and small-town Canada have largely escaped notice for the past few decades; now these communities have to vie for the government’s attention during a time of national crisis.

One rural sector – the tourism industry –reveals the extreme vulnerability of the small-town economy in Canada. Quite remarkably, the crises facing tourism have attracted limited attention countrywide. As the summer season approaches, a monumental economic meltdown is underway. Reservations at hotels, motels, fishing lodges, retreat centres have been cancelled en masse. Many have closed for all of 2020. In Yukon, which has worked exceptionally hard to build a vibrant, international market, the suspension of the West Coast cruise ship season has already caused widespread harm. So it is across the rest of the country, from cozy East Coast bed and breakfasts to world-class Saskatchewan fishing camps, the brilliant theatre towns of southern Ontario, and the spectacular wilderness operations in northern British Columbia and down the Mackenzie River valley.

READ MORE: Cross-border business interests call for joint Canada, U.S. post-COVID effort

The business losses in the tourism sector are serious but they do not explain the collective impact of the decline for rural and small-town tourism. If the travellers do not arrive – and they ae unlikely to come in the summer of 2020 and the crisis could persist into 2021 – the whole community suffers. Airline travel has stalled, hotels have closed, staff have been laid off, restaurants that are struggling to reopen will have fewer of the free-spending tourists, adventure companies are not hiring this year, and the thousands of companies that support the sector are struggling.

Over the last decade, tourism has been a hidden gem in the economic redevelopment of rural Canada. Indigenous tourism alone was slated to breach the $1 billion barrier in 2020, but hundreds of small and vulnerable Indigenous firms are facing bankruptcy. Canada has emerged as an attractive global tourist destination, capitalizing on the country’s spectacular scenery and compelling cultural attractions. This is all at risk as the world’s tourism industry struggles to find its feet in the wake of the pandemic. There is no easy path to the revitalization of tourism, but for small town Canada a great deal is riding on the rebirth.

Across the board, COVID-19 exposed serious weaknesses in rural areas. Poor quality Internet limited the community’s ability to respond to a succession of economic, educational, health and commercial crises. The inadequate health care services stood exposed during the pandemic, with Indigenous communities particularly nervous about the spread of the virus. As waves of layoffs swept across the country, job and income losses hit particularly hard at small-town businesses, tourist operations and resource projects, their economic vulnerability revealed.

READ MORE: Federal deficit likely now at $260 billion due to COVID-19, PBO says

There is no easy solution to the formidable challenges facing small town Canada. In a country awash with economic and social crises, and with the federal government sharply focused on the major difficulties facing the largest metropolitan areas, it is hard to imagine rural and small-town issues rising up high on the national agenda. Quite frankly, the country needs to think seriously about its commitment to the revival and revitalization of rural and small-town Canada, for the prospect looms large that a precipitous decline could easily follow on the heels of the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ken Coates is a Munk Senior Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and Professor and Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation in the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusRural Canada

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The board room of the Fraser Valley Regional District. (FVRD)
Jason Lum re-elected for fifth term as chair of the Fraser Valley Regional District

The inaugural meeting of the Fraser Valley Regional District Board went ahead on Nov. 25

Chilliwack Jets
Chilliwack Jets launching spring hockey program

The Jets will offer something similar to what the Chilliwack Chiefs have across town

Signs up at Hope Secondary School inform visitors that the school is a closed campus during the coronavirus pandemic. (Emelie Peacock/Hope Standard)
SD78 Briefs: COVID-19 exposures and safe schools, mental health training coming

Principal of alternate school TREC examines reward program for students

File
Agassiz Speedway hosts food drive for AHCS

Food, toys, cash and more accepted at Super Valu in Agassiz, Nov. 28

City of Chilliwack survey asks for feedback on planned Rosedale skate park

The new structure will occupy a 3,000 square foot space in the middle of Rosedale Park

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry update the COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, Nov. 23, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. sets another COVID-19 record with 887 new cases

Another 13 deaths, ties the highest three days ago

Despite rumours, Surrey RCMP say they are not issuing tickets to people if they are driving in a vehicle with others from a different household. (File photo)
COVID-19 tickets: No, RCMP arent checking vehicle occupancies, restaurant tables

Enforcement about education, not punishment says Surrey RCMP Cpl. Joanie Sidhu

Alexandre Bissonnette, who pleaded guilty to a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque, arrives at the courthouse in Quebec City on February 21, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mathieu Belanger - POOL
Court strikes down consecutive life sentences; mosque shooter has prison term cut

The decision was appealed by both the defence and the Crown

Gold medallists in the ice dance, free dance figure skating Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, of Canada, pose during their medals ceremony at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Charlie Riedel
Olympic champions Virtue, Moir and Tewksbury among 114 Order of Canada inductees

Moir and Virtue catapulted to national stardom with their gold-medal performances at the Winter Olympics in 2018

Shoppers line up in front of a shop on Montreal’s Saint-Catherine Street in search of Black Friday deals in Montreal, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Black Friday shopping in a pandemic: COVID-19 closes some stores, sales move online

Eric Morris, head of retail at Google Canada, says e-commerce in Canada has doubled during the pandemic.

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Chilliwack school board trustee Barry Neufeld is taking heat over using a ableist slur to refer to three Black Press employees. (Paul Henderson/ Progress file)
BC School Trustees Association president keeps heat on Chilliwack Trustee Barry Neufeld

In a news release, Stephanie Higginson called on voters to take careful note of Neufeld’s behaviour

School District 27 announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 this week (Nov. 23) at Lake City Secondary School Williams Lake campus. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Entire gym class at northern B.C. high school isolating after confirmed COVID case

Contact tracing by Interior Health led to the quarantine

Most Read