Minister's remarks at the combined ROMA-OGRA Conference
Feb 2015

Good morning!

It's great to be back at the Rural Ontario Municipal Association and Ontario Good Roads Association combined conference. I want to thank Ron Eddy, Chair, ROMA and Tom Bateman, President, OGRA, and all the staff and volunteers who have worked so hard to make this conference a reality. This is an event I look forward to each and every year.

Having spent 18 years as a municipal councillor in Peterborough, I appreciate and understand the types of challenges you face. Your dedication to serving your constituents is second to none. I commend you for the work you do. You are driving change and helping make rural Ontario, and our province, stronger.

ROMA-OGRA encourages collaboration and productive conversations between municipal leaders and government officials. These conversations help us develop sound policies that work for rural communities.

Over the past few days, I've met with a number of delegations from across the province on a wide range of topics. It is clear to me that there are many common challenges we face, but there are also many opportunities. Across rural Ontario, municipal leaders like yourselves are empowering and enabling positive change for your communities Events like ROMA-OGRA are an excellent opportunity to learn and share these experiences.

In my role as Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, I have the great privilege of meeting and speaking with people across the province. I often hear firsthand about the important contributions rural Ontario makes to our province. In total, rural Ontario supports 1.2 million jobs and contributes approximately $106 billion to the provincial economy.

The idea that Ontario can succeed with a few large, economically successful cities is not the case. Simply put, we are most successful as a province when both rural Ontario and urban Ontario are strong. The contributions of our rural communities benefit all Ontarians: those who live in towns and villages, and those who live in large cities.

It's why my Ministry provides a broad range of economic development resources that support rural municipalities. Tools like our updated Business Retention and Expansion Program, our Community Economic Development workshops, and our Downtown Revitalization program help communities evaluate and develop plans for future success.

I know staff from my Ministry hosted a 'Partnering for Economic Development Success session' yesterday and spoke with you about some of those tools. We talk lot about dollars and cents, but it is important to recognize that rural Ontario is not just an economic indicator. Rural communities have a unique set of traditions and values, and a distinct culture all their own. I'm proud to call Peterborough my home, and proud to represent rural communities right across this great province.

I personally believe that responsible rural leadership means ensuring the next generation can seek their destiny in rural Ontario. Finding a good job or getting access to high quality health care and education shouldn't mean having to move to an urban area. While the needs of urban and rural Ontarians are often the same, I'm sure many of you in this room are aware that the way these needs are met can be very different.

Rural Ontario covers a vast area, has lower population densities, and is sometimes farther away from commercial markets. As a result, what may work in urban cities doesn't necessarily work the same in a rural community.

Take transportation, for example.

In Toronto, the needs may call for more public transit options. But in rural Ontario, those dollars are needed for reliable roads and bridges. Both urban and rural Ontario have the same challenge: moving people and goods from place to place. But the solution is different.

We also know that there are many innovative projects underway in our rural communities that we, as government, can learn from and build upon.

Let's take the example of health care.

Coordinating care and ensuring health providers work as a team is a priority.

It's why we are moving forward with Community Health Links an innovative model of care built on partnerships found in rural communities. Community Health Links break down silos – ensuring doctors, specialists and long-term care providers work collaboratively to assist patients with complex conditions. It is an example of how we can learn from the close-knit partnerships that exist in rural communities.

I want to speak directly to you about the concept of a "rural-urban divide". While there is no doubt there are things that set us apart, there many more things that unite us.

At the end of the day, we are all in this together – success for one part of Ontario can and should mean success for the entire province.

I want to work with you to ensure Rural Ontario has a seat at the table.

We need to ensure your ideas, challenges and opportunities are an essential part of the conversation as we build a province that works for everyone. We can't talk about meeting rural Ontario's needs without discussing agriculture.

Rural Ontario is home to our dynamic, innovative agriculture sector. It's where some of the best food in the world is grown, and it's where our province's potential for growth shows no limit. Agriculture and the businesses that support it are important economic drivers for many rural communities.

In my job as Minister, I'm focused on four key priorities for Ontario's agriculture and agri-food sector:

First, in return for supplying Ontarians with a safe, reliable, domestic supply of key food products, consumers will support producers in achieving a fair return for their work and investment.

Second, that we work collaboratively to grow the sector's economic contribution and meet the Premier's challenge of 120,000 new jobs by 2020.

Third, that the issues of food safety, animal welfare, sustainability and environmental protection are addressed in a manner that meets the needs of both consumers and producers.

And fourth, that we continue to provide producers with Business Risk Management programs that meet their needs and support continued food production in Ontario.

You and I both know, agriculture is extremely important, but it isn't our only issue of focus. In order to look comprehensively at issues and opportunities for rural communities, my Ministry hosted the first Rural Ontario Summit in March, 2014.

It was an excellent opportunity to learn from rural leaders in fields including health care, education and economic development.

At the Summit, we identified 4 key priorities:

  • investing in people;
  • investing in infrastructure;
  • investing in business and regions;
  • and continuing the conversation

Those priorities are reflected in our Rural Roadmap, a report released shortly after the Summit. The Roadmap summarizes the conversations we had with rural leaders. It also lays the foundation for rural policy making and for a rural plan that we will develop collaboratively. At the Summit, I committed to keeping folks informed of our progress.

And we've made progress on a number of important initiatives.

We launched the Jobs and Prosperity Fund, which sets aside funding to support Ontario's food processors - major buyers of the good things that are grown, harvested and made in rural Ontario.

We've developed a Provincial Policy Statement that provides guidelines on agricultural and rural land use. We'll be consulting on the guidelines that support the Provincial Policy Statement soon. We've also made significant progress in bringing broadband to rural Ontario. High-speed internet is essential in 21st century.

It makes communities investment ready, and allows residents to stay in touch with family and friends.

In collaboration with the Eastern Ontario Warden's Caucus, our government supported the expansion of broadband internet to over 95 per cent of households in Eastern Ontario. And we're currently reviewing a proposal from the Western Ontario Warden's Caucus to bring similar connectivity to southwestern Ontario.

Together, we're making important progress on initiatives that support strong rural communities. The first Rural Ontario Summit was a great success. To build on this work, we'll hold a second Summit in 2016.

In order to help thrive and succeed, we know that rural communities benefit from economic and community development supports. I believe it is important that government continue to play a role in delivering and assisting with these supports.

Across Ontario, rural municipalities are doing excellent work to manage budgets and be fiscally responsible in the presence of changing economic times.

As government, we want to continue to partner with you to promote economic development opportunities and community improvements. We've seen great success so far with our Rural Economic Development – or RED – program. Since 2003, Ontario has invested more than $180 million towards hundreds of RED projects, generating more than $1.2 billion in economic activity and creating over 36,000 new jobs.

With support from RED, municipalities like Port Hope and Cobourg are revitalizing their downtown areas, helping to increase tourism and support local businesses.

And companies like Goodall Rubber in Collingwood are using RED funding to purchase state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment that supports the agri-food and processing sectors.

We want to ensure that all government programs provide support in the most effective way possible. For this reason, we're putting a temporary pause on RED application intakes. Funding will remain the same – our 2014 Budget confirmed $14.5 million annually for the program. But the review will help us ensure the RED program meets the needs of industry, community organizations and municipalities going forward. We expect to begin new intakes this summer and to see more municipalities and regions benefiting from this valuable program.

Rural Ontario can also access support through the Small Communities Fund - a federal and provincial partnership. Through this fund, Ontario and the federal government will each provide over $270 million to support infrastructure projects in rural municipalities.

I've heard loud and clear that our rural communities need a permanent source of predictable, long-term infrastructure funding. And that's why, with the Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure, we created the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund. This fund is an excellent example of positive, collaborative policy making. The program's formula-based and application-based funding design was based on feedback we received from you – our municipal leaders.

Last fall, we announced the formula-based funding allocations for all municipalities.

We also invited and received many well thought out applications for funding.

Today, I'm pleased to announce that we have approved 78 projects for funding.

These projects include roads, bridges, water and wastewater infrastructure – critical components to rural communities.

One of the approved projects will see North Huron Township add a new well to their water supply system, create elevated storage, and build a new back-up well. These improvements will help the community meet infrastructure requirements for their emergency and fire services. And the Town of Essex is doing complete reconstruction of more than a kilometre of roadway, including extending sidewalks, and pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure.

Through the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund, municipalities are accessing funds to make valuable improvements to their communities. Over time, we intend to transition this program to an entirely formula-based grant – based on valuable advice received from municipal leaders. I thank you for your continued feedback here.

Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you'll join me again in congratulating the ROMA-OGRA coordinators for organizing another great conference. As you return home, I encourage you to remember that rural and urban Ontario are interconnected. To be truly successful, we must work together, not only as rural municipalities, but as one Ontario.

Thank you for everything you've done, and continue to do, to ensure rural Ontario remains an economic driver for this province. As we move forward, I am committed to listening and learning from you. Together, we'll ensure Ontario continues to be the best place in the world live, work and raise a family.

Thank you.

Jeff Leal
Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs


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Author: OMAFRA Staff
Creation Date: 05 March 2015
Last Reviewed: 05 March 2015