Flexibility needed to deal with Northern challenges

Small rural communities, such as those to be found on Manitoulin Island, face many significant hurdles in overcoming the plethora of challenges that distance and geography present to the development and growth of their local economies. The Island stands as a metaphor for Northern Ontario itself, where even the larger so-called hub communities such as Sudbury, Timmins and Sault Ste. Marie often face challenges in providing public transportation and accommodating the needs of a modern economic society.

Many of those people living in larger urban centres in the south dismiss the issues that face rural and remote communities by simply saying “move somewhere else.” Sadly, a cursory glance at the provincial Grow North Plan would confirm that, not so very deeply buried between the lines, government policy largely follows that line of thought.

But within the current infrastructure in place in many rural and Northern communities, there is room for accommodation that could go a long way toward solving some transportation issues and helping smaller communities continue to thrive.

We have plenty of historical examples of thinking outside the box here on Manitoulin Island that have leveraged existing assets to alleviate some of the challenges presented by a lack of public transportation.

Several years ago it was deemed impossible to accommodate the students of Hope Farm within the school buses of the transportation consortium that runs the bus systems of four of the Sudbury and District school boards, yet a solution was found to that challenge using existing assets, a system that has been working to the present day.

Despite this, every few years it seems the transportation battle must be fought again—most recently with challenges to Rainbow District School Board co-op students using the school buses to get to their jobs after school. While much of that challenge has apparently been solved to some extent, the battle seems to resurface almost every year.

A worse and even more egregious issue that remains unsolved is that students at Manitoulin Secondary School wishing to partake in extracurricular activities must either live in an area that has a sufficient number of students to justify a late bus, be wealthy enough to have their own source of transportation, a parent willing and able to take up the task, or be deprived of that opportunity. Most often it is students from Gore Bay and other Western Manitoulin communities that feel the brunt of this policy.

There are great examples of innovative thinking currently being studied by the Rainbow District School Board, the plan to utilize excess space in smaller schools for other purposes such as dentist and doctor’s offices or other complementary community services are a great example. Rather than simply closing schools and busing students across ever-greater distances to the next school building, this approach will allow smaller communities to retain their schools and perhaps even enhance local services.

As anyone involved in real estate can tell you, the presence of schools in a community is vital to that community’s growth and even survival. Young families are not likely to entertain the idea of having their children spend hours getting to and from school.

The winds of prevailing policy direction at the higher levels of government are not generally favourable to this kind of approach, witness the underpinnings of the Grow North Plan. Rather the aggregation of population in “service hubs” is being encouraged through legislation and regulation, sometimes in an overt manner, but most often through subtle interpretations and a death of a thousand cuts.

Northerners and Manitoulin Island residents in particular must remain vigilant in dealing with policy decisions being made outside their region that would see rural communities wither and die simply to satisfy bureaucratic rationalization and the easing of service delivery in the geographically dispersed regions such as the North.

Just as technology and the Internet has advanced to the point where young professionals can viably consider plying their professions in rural communities, the race to find the cheapest solutions to service delivery threaten to derail that opportunity for rural residents to maintain their communities and lifestyle. The health and future of rural communities require that policy makers not only think outside the box in finding solutions, but they must also have the political will required to make that effort.

The embers of political will are fanned when the public expresses an interest in an issue. Complacency and inaction are not an option if our way of life is to survive over the long run.