Smoky River Regional Economic Development

Dan Dibbelt
Smoky River Regional
Economic Development

The price of living in
northern Alberta,
Part I
Living in northern Alberta comes with a price. This shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone living here, but I think few people fully understand the real costs of living in our region, a region that is largely rural.
But what exactly does rural mean? Well that depends who you ask and even then the definition can vary. Statistics Canada suggests the definition is dependant on the question you are asking. Ultimately, they define rural as “the population living in towns and municipalities outside the commuting zone of larger urban centres (i.e. outside the commuting zone of centres with population of 10,000 or more).
They do not suggest how far outside an urban community of 10,000 or more people one must live o be classified as rural, but for the sake of this article I am going to go with 45 minutes driving time. Based on that pretty much everyone in northwest Alberta living north of Rycroft and east of Debolt is rural.
Certainly some areas such as Zama City are more rural than other areas of the northwest but on the whole we share some common challenges of living in rural Alberta. Numerous studies have been done around the world highlighting the cost of living in rural regions, but the cost is not just financial (but I will get to that later).
Study after study has shown rural living has an impact on our mental and physical health as well. Studies show that rural dwellers, especially those living in more rural areas, have higher levels of addiction, higher levels of diabetes, heart disease and a host of other illnesses. Suicide is more prevalent in northern communities than elsewhere. And mental health issues are also higher in rural areas than in urban areas.
The reason for some of these differences is fairly obvious. People living in more remote areas have less access to prevention, intervention and treatment opportunities. For someone suffering from a mental illness, access to counselling or medical services often requires traveling to a larger center, which by the definition of rural, may be a challenge.
For people with addictions, accessing confidential support is a challenge. Small communities offer the advantage of being friendly and welcoming. While this great in most instances, when you have an addiction and don’t want anyone else to know, attending Alcoholics, Anonymous in a small community is a daunting thought. The end result is the person either travels a considerable distance to seek help or simply does nothing.
Rural residents with medical needs requiring specialized treatments on a regular basis, driving up to 500 or 600 kilometers to access medical treatments or attention becomes a normal routine exercise.
Even having a baby in rural Alberta is not a simple process. In the Smoky region, maternity patients have to head to Peace River to have a baby in the hospital, unless of course there is concern of complications and then the expectant parents need to travel to Grande Prairie or Edmonton.
In addition to the time and financial cost of having to travel for medical purposes, there is often also a cost of lost income from having to take time off work and hotel and meal costs. There is also an emotional cost from having to seek help away from home and the apprehension about driving on potentially dangerous roads.
All these costs also have an impact on our communities. Attracting new people to rural municipalities is exacerbated by the lack of specialized medical services. And we always risk losing residents that develop an illness that requires specialized services. Seniors also often leave our rural communities to move to larger centers in anticipation of needing more services as they age.
The loss of people in our small rural centers has a big impact on our communities. Ten jobs lost in the Falher of McLennan is equivalent to 1,000 jobs lost in Edmonton. That is a startling number, but what can we do about it?
Part two in next week’s edition of the Smoky River Express.


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