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Fort Smith, Alta, is a remote community. A new report suggests a federal strategy for better education and infrastructure will go a long way toward drawing private investment to remote communities. (Parks Canada/Parks Canada)
Fort Smith, Alta, is a remote community. A new report suggests a federal strategy for better education and infrastructure will go a long way toward drawing private investment to remote communities. (Parks Canada/Parks Canada)

Ottawa urged to encourage private-sector projects in remote communities Add to ...

Private sector investment will be crucial if Canada’s remote communities are to grow and prosper, but the federal government must set the stage by cutting red tape and improving education and infrastructure in smaller centres, a new study suggests.

The report, to be released Monday by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, says a long-term strategy for remote community development is needed, but there are many things the government can do to encourage investment.

The conclusions stem from a series of cross-country round tables conducted with business leaders over the past year, and an online survey, conducted by the chamber in collaboration with General Electric Canada.

The report concluded that remote communities can make a huge contribution to Canada’s overall wealth, mainly because they form the gateway to key resources. Private companies can unlock that wealth, it says, but only if they are encouraged by supportive government policies that can help draw in business investment.

Ottawa’s role should not be to pump more money into remote communities, but to establish a coherent plan that will encourage private-sector spending, said Elyse Allan, chief executive officer of GE Canada.

“It is not necessarily an ask for more, as much as [a request]for leadership [and]some strategic thinking,” she said.

Among the most important things companies are looking for in remote communities is a skilled, local, work force, Ms. Allan said. Investing in good education, particularly for First Nations youth, should be a top priority, she said. “If you can build an educated and skilled labour force in the location, it changes the economics of development.”

The report says that many current education programs are designed to meet national goals, but are not flexible or focused enough for specific communities. Sometimes governments should partner with businesses to make sure training programs meet the needs of employers, it says.

The Chamber of Commerce also wants to see governments cut back on red tape that results from poorly designed regulations, and often delays investments. There is unnecessary overlap and duplication of regulation, it says, offering the example of greenhouse gas reports, which have to be sent separately, and in different forms, to federal, provincial and territorial governments.

When it comes to infrastructure, it is not realistic for all the gaps to be filled by governments on their own, the report suggests. But the private sector won’t build projects without some incentives, it adds. While some innovative programs have been created to help encourage the spread of broadband telecommunications networks in the North, these models need to be shifted into other kinds of infrastructure as well, it says.

The report also suggests that more effort be made to add value to resource extraction activities that take place in remote locations. If more processing can be done on-site, there will be more skilled jobs and more spinoffs to secondary industry, and a better chance these communities will survive when the supplies of basic resources diminish in the future.

While the executives who had input into the report expect a lot from government, they also demonstrated a strong sense of optimism about the growth opportunities that remote communities present for Canada, Ms. Allan said. “If we invest wisely and work well together with our communities, this can build a better Canada,” she said. In the vast resource sector, “we have something a lot of people don’t, and the knowledge and capability to do something with it.”

Some key recommendations from the Chamber of Commerce report

- Ottawa should work with businesses to make sure training programs in remote communities meet their needs

- Federal, provincial and territorial statutes and regulations should be harmonized

- Drafts of new regulations should be shown to companies to gain their input

- Commercial benefits should be considered when choosing locations for federal infrastructure projects

- Ottawa should help train entrepreneurs so they can set up small businesses in remote communities

- All levels of government should work on a long-term strategy to ensure remote communities benefit from resource wealth, and are prepared for when it is gone.

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