STRATFORD -- The second of three Rural Ontario Summits (ROS) was held this year on July 29 in Stratford, Ont. At the head of the event was Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Jeff Leal. Leal quotes in a release about the summit that "the 2016 Rural Ontario Summit has been a great success, and the conversations we have had, both at the summit and the rural roundtables held in advance, will help us better address the challenges and needs of rural Ontario and the young people living there. By bringing together a wide crosssection of rural Ontario, including youth, provincial and municipal representatives and private and public organizations, we have created a truly collaborative approach for sharing ideas and learning from each other to build a bright future for rural Ontario."
The summit was the host of more than 200 youth, rural workers and municipal leaders including Ontario farm leaders Don McCabe of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and Emery Huszka of the National Farmers Union of Ontario.
The summit brought attention to four main themes that were then discussed throughout the day. These themes were: education and training, jobs and entrepreneurship, social infrastructure and civic leadership. These themes were determined while Leal attended 11 different roundtable discussions across Ontario.
Each theme had a distinctive setup and feel. While speaking about education and training a lot of emphasis was placed on the 4-H clubs. This led to individual table discussions about how each community can provide more education opportunities.
The second theme discussion had each table come up with their own business idea and plan that could potentially improve a community. The groups then brought their ideas forward in a Dragon's Den style to be judged by a panel of young entrepreneurs. Each session made sure to incorporate a different learning style to the four themes so as to keep the discussions interesting and break up the day, maintaining significance throughout the summit.
Christina Crowley, the Press Secretary and Senior Communications Advisor at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), was at the summit and explained that "the summit was a mix of providing information and ideas to attendees but also helping them feel empowered with the right tools to go back to their communities and begin making a difference. The energy in the room was amazing. It was incredible to see people of all ages and generations working together on youth, a topic that you can tell is so important to their communities."
Coverage of the event led to the consensus from industry insiders that there are tons of jobs available in agriculture to young people. Meghan Taylor, a participant of the ROS and researcher with Pickseed Canada, said, "For every student that graduates from an agricultural program, there are three jobs waiting for them." The idea seems to suggest that it's not for lack of employment in rural Ontario but lack of youth. This may be a result of young people being unaware of what is available to them. Recent high school graduate Logan Emiry thought that maybe it was because the "agricultural industry hasn't necessarily promoted itself as well as it should."
This knowledge of what's available to young people should start early. Jacinda Rudolph knows that for young people the agriculture industry needs to "start with education, start with letting you know what opportunities are available." This is why the consensus from the ROS was that if any young person is showing interest in agriculture, they should get involved with a 4-H club immediately.
Once young people are aware of what is available to them in the rural communities and what options they have, there also has to be enough infrastructure and services to keep them there.
One of Holstein Canada's Directors Angus MacKinnon mentioned that "the urban pull is strong, it draws young people away from the rural sector." Urban centres have so many appeals for young people, things that they need as a generation. One of the biggest factors is good Internet connections and cell service.
Eric Duncan, Mayor of North Dundas, attended the ROS and said he brought his community's work with better Internet to the table. Duncan was previously the Chair of the Eastern Ontario Warden's Caucus (EOWC) and during his term helped to implement a digital strategy in Eastern Ontario. In 2014, EOWC created the Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN) to build a $170-million rural broadband network that serves over one million people across rural Eastern Ontario. Duncan was adamant that the rural areas "need to match the service that cities offer," an important factor in rural Ontario appealing to young people.
The success of the EORN is calling for International awards for the EOWC and has led to the Western Ontario Warden's Caucus (WOWC) to look into a similar program. Both government and private sectors answered the call for such services in rural Ontario and the EWOC's broadband project saw $55-million from the federal government, $65-million from the provincial government and the rest from private sectors. Duncan said that bringing these successes and ideas to the ROS was important to him and his team. They wished to share their success and help other communities achieve such dramatic results.
There were a lot of discussions during the day of the summit and the civic leaders have a number of ideas to bring forward in their respective communities. The conversation about rural Ontario did not end on the summit day though; at the close of the summit three initiatives were announced in order to ensure the continuation of the dialogue. A report will be published including the ideas, feedback and practices discussed at the summit, a one-window website will be created to help rural Ontarians access all the information about rural Ontario in one place and a third summit will take place in 2018 to see what the 2016 summit produced and what more still needs to be done.