Is the goal of this provincial government to encourage migration from rural areas to urban centres, as suggested by one Elgin county mayor? That was one of the issues raised at a roundtable on rural poverty held Feb. 24 at the CASO station in St. Thomas and hosted by Elgin-Middlesex-London Conservative MPP Jeff Yurek.
Attended by two dozen municipal and social/community agency representatives, the forum was designed to get a sense of what rural poverty is and its impact on St. Thomas and Elgin county municipalities, explained Yurek afterward.
“What’s available and what barriers are out there for people. Too often policies are developed in Toronto with an urban lens and we need to look at it with a rural point of view. It’s different living in rural Ontario and we need to have a balance in policies to ensure we can help get people out of poverty in rural Ontario.”
He continued, “The top issues I’m hearing are housing, energy, food security, transportation and mental health support. It’s not too shocking that those are concerns, but it’s something we need to have a focus on going forward. And come to solutions that fit rural Ontario. You can’t have the solutions in Toronto, they have more resources to access, easier transportation systems. Rural Ontario needs a different solution and we need to ensure there is a balance in policy.”
The first area of discussion was that of crisis management in a rural environment.
Brad Fishleigh, Elgin OPP detachment commander, put forth the suggestion of a “one-stop shop” referral line to assist his officers in crisis situations.
“We have victim services when people are victims of crime that can provide information and assistance to help them get through a short period of time. I would love to see a one-stop shop referral line like victim services – victim services doesn’t include mental health – but for our office it would be nice. We quite often go into a home on a call where there may be abuse or something going on that could be of a criminal nature or a safety element but we don’t have any way to deal with that. We can say here’s a number you can call at public health, but it would be really nice to have a one-stop shop with a phone number for our office. They have so many referral agencies and you’re trying to determine which agency is going to be the right agency to call or try to refer them to.
“Fishleigh continued, “Quite often when people are in a crisis they don’t want to be a dis-service to anyone. You can leave them the information and they may call later when the crisis has settled down. With victim services we can usually say, ‘If I give your information to victim services we can have them contact you at a later date. I think they have information they can help you with.’ But if victim services was able to be the one-stop shop . . . that would certainly be of great assistance to us. With so many people, we don’t deal with poverty . . . we don’t have the tools and resources.”
One participant questioned whether the 211 phone service – a national public utility designed to serve as the “front-door” access to community, social, health and government services – was being sufficiently utilized in rural areas.
“How do people get information and how do we make sure in rural areas where people don’t have high-speed internet, people have access to the things they need,” stressed Heather DeBruyn, Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Elgin branch executive director.
Central Elgin Mayor Dave Marr questioned the number of mental health beds available in Elgin.
“Since the Ontario hospital (the former St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital which closed in 2013) closed down, pressure has been put on the local hospitals but I don’t think they have the whereabouts to deal with most people who need this required help, such as mental health beds . . . we’re having more and more people with issues and no place to go immediately. I’m hearing tales of people showing up at the hospital and they’re going there quite depressed, suicidal maybe, but because nothing is wrong medically they are not able to handle it.”
Fishleigh assured that is not the case in St. Thomas.
“Actually St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital is a Schedule 1 hospital and they do have mental health beds,” he pointed out. “So, anyone should be able to go to the hospital and receive mental health help . . . if they are not in crisis, a determination will be made. They do go through an assessment and a determination can be made.
In reality, St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital opened a new mental health care program in January, 2014. It includes a 15-bed unit for in-patients requiring hospitalization up to two weeks, and space for related outpatient programs and services. The unit has nine single and six double patient rooms, as well as common areas such as a family visiting room and group therapy spaces. STEGH’s program involves both inpatient and outpatient assessment and intervention as needed for adults 18 and older.
The mental health care program will remain in this temporary location until a permanent facility, part of STEGH’s Great Expansion, is completed early in 2018.
“There is always that difference of opinion on who needs to be hospitalized and who can be discharged,” explained DeBruyn. “We are working closely with the police and the hospital and community partners and we also have situations here in St. Thomas, difficult situations, where a number of organizations have to get together to try to help people. We are trying to work with those people who don’t get admitted to hospital . . . but would be able to access a mobile crisis worker from CMHA so they could help, depending on what the situation would be. It is on a case-by-case on who the hospital admits and who they don’t admit. But they do have capacity . . . and they are doing quite well with that. When they are over capacity, we have safe beds in the community and they will call us . . . and we can still monitor them until they are ready to go home.
The discussion shifted to the need for and role of transportation in rural areas.
“Public transit doesn’t work in rural Ontario,” stressed Marr. “I’ll give you an example. The Foodland in Port Stanley burned down and now people in Port Stanley needed to come to St. Thomas. A local service organization tried to coordinate a bus to come from Port Stanley to St. Thomas to get groceries and it didn’t work for various reasons. I can remember when there was public transit between Port Stanley, St. Thomas, Talbotville and into London and it ran three times a day. It died because nobody was using it. Or not enough people were using it.
“There just isn’t the people there to use that. Having said that, our public transit is our roads and the internet. We need funding to keep our roads up. And we need funding for the internet so that people can have access. People can do a lot of things over the internet so they don’t have to go to an office anymore. So without high-speed internet, or something close to high-speed, it’s pretty tough out there. We just don’t get that funding.”
West Elgin Mayor Bernie Wiehle was in agreement.
“For general public transportation . . . it’s very difficult. We would be further off making it easier for people to get whatever services they need where they live, in Rodney and West Lorne and Dutton. It’s still pretty difficult to get from Rodney to West Lorne or Dutton to get to West Lorne. Instead of trying to centralize government services in St. Thomas or even in one smaller place, you would be better off working those systems in smaller village hubs. We made a bit of mistake in West Elgin when we moved the driver’s licence office and moved it out to our own office (on Hoskins Line, north of Rodney). It was a cost-savings for us but it’s inconvenient. We need to bring more of the services into the villages. It would be better for us than trying to subsidize a bus into St. Thomas.”
“A lot of seniors have to access Service Canada,” added Marr, “and if you’ve ever tried to phone Service Canada you can understand the frustration of press this, press that and then you eventually talk to someone who says, ‘I’m sorry I can’t deal with you.’ That’s a federal level but it’s similar at the provincial level where you can’t access those services. People in Belmont and Port Stanley . . . to try to get to various services is pretty tough if you can’t afford a vehicle. And maybe they don’t have somebody to drive them in. And what if they can’t afford the internet?
The situation in St. Thomas is not necessarily any better for low-income individuals, noted Karen McDade, general manager of the St. Thomas Food Bank.
“For transportation in this town, it is very poor. The taxi cabs and the bus routes aren’t the best at what times they run. A lot of our clients take the bus one way to get their groceries but for getting back they take a cab. But from the Superstore to Elm Street was $30. It’s things like that . . . and insurance for vehicles. A lot have taken their cars off the road, if they did have a vehicle, because they can’t afford insurance and gas prices.”
Individuals and families quite often choose to live in rural areas because of a more relaxed way of life, suggested Dutton Dunwich Mayor Cameron McWilliam.
“People who live in rural areas live there because they like the small-town atmosphere and they’re pretty independent. They understand volunteering and helping people out. You’d be surprised the number of people who come into our municipal offices with problems totally unrelated to what we do . . . but we’ve had situations where we’ve helped through Jeff’s MPP Jeff Yurek) office or other offices . . . sometimes it’s just to fill out a form. They don’t have internet and they don’t have a car and they’re too embarrassed to get a ride to go into the city.
“I agree with Bernie (Wiehle). We’ve done this to a certain extent where we run the Service Ontario office in the village but we need more satellite offices . . . people want to live in the community . . . and if we start talking about transportation systems that take them out of the community, all you do is add to the problem. You don’t have people who are going to be attending your schools and churches and your community centre. That only makes the problem even worse.”
McWilliam said there is value in attracting people to rural areas.
“You look at the recent census and immigrants are moving more to the rural areas than the big cities, for whatever reason. And we’ll welcome them. We have challenges, but I just don’t believe busing people out of an area is the answer. You’ve got to make sure you have the services, the rural doctors in the community and the other health services that we need. It doesn’t have to be 24/7 and I also agree with Brad (Fishleigh), I’m not going to say a one-stop shop, but something that gets the person to the right agency. We do a good job in Elgin county linking agencies together but to be able to get them together with the right person before they get a visit from the local police or whatever . . . that would be pointing people in the right direction. So I don’t believe in transportation in rural areas, we need services where people are.”
It was suggested the cost of operating a rural transit system would be cost prohibitive.
“The service clubs do a lot out there but the problem is the aging population, including that of service clubs,” said Marr. “Some of those people who used to help you get to your doctor’s appointment no longer can drive. I really feel the priority for the province right now is to get people out of rural Ontario because it is too costly to service, in their minds. And so they are forcing us, little by little, to go to the cities where, on economies of scale, they can look after you better. If you do that, who is going to work the farms, as an example.
“More and more kids are bused into the city for schooling. Are those kids going to want to stay in the country? So, if we don’t create the atmosphere in the little areas that this is a place to live, we don’t provide those services, they are all going to eventually leave.”
In wrapping up the forum, Yurek suggested the province is “a little out of touch.”
He continued, “The government in power today is basically an urban government, the policy makers are centralized in urban areas and I would welcome them to come out. I’m more than willing to work with them to have our voices heard. I think they need to do that in Northern Ontario and in southwestern and eastern Ontario so that we can have Ontario looked at as a whole as opposed to a one-size fits all.
“The feedback from today I’m going to share it with the rural policy task force that our premier has created but also share it with our party critic as we’re developing policy for the next election, and they can take a look at what we hear in Elgin and St. Thomas.”