The Importance of Rural and Remote Community Development: An Interview with the Honourable Bob Nault

The Honourable Bob Nault. Photo courtesy of Bob Nault’s office.

The Honourable Bob Nault is a Member of Parliament (MP) representing the riding of Kenora, Ontario, where he serves 53 communities, including 42 First Nations of which, 20 are remote and only accessible by air. He was first elected to the House of Commons as the MP for Kenora—Rainy River in 1988. Following the 1988 election, Nault ran successfully in the 1993, 1997, and 2000 federal elections before taking a break and working in the private sector. In the 2015 federal election, Nault was elected to a fifth term.

As one of the largest geographical ridings in the country, Kenora encompasses one third of Ontario’s land mass. Within this area, there are growing industrial and mining opportunities which would provide significant economic advantages to the communities within Mr. Nault’s riding. As a senior member of the federal Liberal Rural Caucus, he is very focused on developing prosperous and competitive rural areas across the country. This past October, I had the privilege to sit with him to get his perspective on how the expansion of the natural gas delivery system could help rural and Northern Canada.

Tim: You are a Member of Parliament with a significant amount of experience including when you were Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s  Cabinet  from 1999 to 2003. What have you learned during your time in the House of Commons and what does that mean for you going into the next election?

MP Nault: I think the government’s agenda is and will continue to focus on building the economy for Canadians.  We have worked very hard to put in place the right initiatives, including major infrastructure programs and low-carbon policies, to make that happen. Going into this election, the focus will be on building a strategy for economic development that is conscious of the environment.

That being said, this is an opportune time for us to have a conversation about what this means and what it will take to get there. From the perspective of a rural MP, it has always been my view that in order for Canadians living in rural areas to continue to live there and prosper, we will have to put in place specific policies – like support for natural gas and natural gas expansion. There are two important reasons why we want to do that.

First and foremost because it’s a lower carbon alternative to other energy sources currently in place. Second, because energy costs are very high in northern and rural areas and natural gas offers a much more affordable alternative. If you are going to get businesses and manufacturers to build in the North, they need to have a competitive energy source that is clean, affordable, reliable, and safe. The federal Liberal Rural Caucus wants to make sure that government recognizes that there are opportunities in the North and in rural Canada. In working to expand natural gas delivery we are making sure that those opportunities aren’t lost.

Tim: Do you think your constituents have a sense of the opportunity that natural gas can provide? Do you get a sense that there is a demand or desire for it?

MP Nault: In the conversations I have with a number of municipalities – both leaders and community members – many are asking why there isn’t more expansion of natural gas infrastructure in their regions. I don’t believe this is specific only to my riding, there are other examples of this across the country. Last summer we held a retreat for rural MPs and the consensus around the room was that there is a willingness to work with you (CGA) and your members/companies in regions across Canada to expand natural gas networks.

The question is how do we achieve this economically? Of course there is demand and interest, but northerners and rural Canadians know that it is always a bit of a difficult proposition because the funding models never seem to fit within sparse and large geographic areas like ours.  If the gas industry can help us accomplish this in an economical and environmentally sustainable way, then I think we will start to see more growth in the region.

Tim: You mentioned from the start that your government has an environmental agenda and an economic agenda. Do you feel at times that there is friction between the two?  Do you feel like your government colleagues see the value proposition that you see, and do you feel there is an understanding that natural gas can actually be a part of the solution?

“In the conversations I have with a number of municipalities – both leaders and community members – many are asking why there isn’t more expansion of natural gas infrastructure in their regions.”

MP Nault: I believe they understand. I believe the real policy issue in these discussions, is a question of which jurisdiction is best suited to move projects along. For example, in Ontario the province has offered funding for a natural gas pipeline expansion program. From a federal perspective, the perception may be that it is not our jurisdiction, it’s the province’s jurisdiction and they should be taking the lead. This may be the correct way to approach this, but from a political policy perspective what I am advocating is that the expansion of natural gas pipelines be put in our major infrastructure programming federally nonetheless. That would allow each province to set their own priorities and if natural gas pipeline expansions for rural and remote communities rank amongst these, then they could get support. We would not take away the jurisdictional power that exists constitutionally, we are not trying to change that.  What we are trying to do is put in place larger opportunities for people to make decisions in different areas. I believe natural gas expansion projects should be added to the bigger program.

Tim: Is there more as an industry that we should be doing to advance this idea? Is there more that we should do to make sure that when you do look at infrastructure investment, natural gas on the list?

MP Nault: I think all of us can do a better job at presenting the arguments. I am promoting the expansion of the natural gas system to the region of Sioux Lookout in Ontario for the residents of that region who want it for heating, but also because there are three or four mining opportunities within that area. In my opinion, it is much easier to develop a major mining or manufacturing project if the cost modeling includes more affordable energy.

I believe natural gas provides both economic and environmental benefits to support the energy needs for these projects and our communities. However, it is important that we make that case early on, not after the proposal is complete. It is pretty clear that the mining opportunities in northwest (ON) are significant. In Ontario, there is a lot of focus on the Ring of Fire, but my understanding is that the opportunities are throughout the North, providing a significant economic opportunity for the province and the country as a whole. As I previously stated, I think we can all do a better job of putting forth the arguments.

Tim: As you know there are ridings similar to yours right across the country with similar conditions and opportunities. Is this an idea that can become a multi-party collaboration to help develop infrastructure all across Canada irrespective of the fact that it affects a riding held by a Liberal, Conservative, NDP or other MPs? Is this something you think we should be working harder on?

MP Nault: I would definitely define these types of conversations as being non-partisan. In my view, it is more about rural vs. urban”because often urban MPs have a significant amount of clout. I think that all rural ridings have the same challenges as I do. It is hard to get our initiatives on the radar because we are a smaller group. I think rural MPs on all sides of the House are looking to grow their economies to make sure that we are building for the future and getting access to better energy supply. The key to all of this will be access to the right energy sources.

Home owners in rural Canada will tell you that their biggest concern is home heating costs. High energy costs put rural Canadians at a disadvantage in a number ways. Our goal is to make sure that we are as competitive as we can be. But in order to achieve this, we need to convince policy makers that when defining new strategies for the North, a one size fits all approach isn’t necessarily the way to go. We are different and unique. We have some areas that may cost more to develop, but that does not mean development and prosperity cannot be achieved. Look at the TransCanada Highway, or major pipelines that run across the country. If we took a narrow approach to those when they were being developed, then we wouldn’t have the infrastructure we have today. On the larger policy strategy, I would say that part of the challenge is that we don’t have a federal minister of rural development and because of that I believe that our issues don’t get debated or argued as well as they should. In the past we have had rural ministers, but not one with a stand-alone portfolio. I think if you want to grow rural parts of Canada and the necessary infrastructure for this region, it would be important to have someone who is seized with these issues.

“I believe natural gas provides both economic and environmental benefits to support the energy needs for these projects and our communities.”

Tim: Your time in Cabinet saw you with responsibility for Aboriginal affairs. Often we talk about the challenges of rural Canada and often these are challenges that exist to an even greater degree in Aboriginal communities. Do you have any comment on the implications of energy system expansion for these communities?

MP Nault: As a Member of Parliament who represents 42 First Nation communities in my  riding, many who do not have access to natural gas even though they are located next to a community that has natural gas, I consider this an important priority. These communities rely on higher emitting and more expensive forms of energy for their everyday needs. I believe support is needed so that they can access more reliable and more affordable energy supply. Support for natural gas infrastructure from the federal government would make a big difference in the quality of life of First Nations’ residents who are struggling with high energy costs. Northern Canadians and First Nation communities do not want to be left behind, we want to be a part of the economy.  We do not want to see our kids move away.  We want them to have employment opportunities in our communities, but we need to have the basic infrastructure to ensure those, and I think access to natural gas is a big part of that.

Tim: Any final thoughts?

MP Nault: I would strongly recommend, based on the discussion we are having here today and the conversations we have had over the last year with the Rural Caucus, that you and your members consider having these conversations with provincial leaders. I believe it is important for everyone to be aware of the dialogue happening federally and the support from MPs who believe that it is time to move forward with important energy projects for the advancement of our country. Developing natural gas infrastructure in the North and in rural Canada is a good opportunity, we just need to put the policy parameters in place at both levels of government to help move this work in the right direction.