economies are naturally vulnerable.
Natural barriers, including remoteness and marine geography, implicitly,
exacerbate the challenge of easy access.
on resources like fishing, trees and tourism, historically have a seasonal
character, which together with fluctuating markets and other factors, keep
disposable incomes low.
attraction of stable, high paying jobs whether in Fort McMurray or elsewhere is
impossible to ignore.
communities are not just in decline, they are being gutted. Rural NL is under threat, less now from
unemployment than from labour mobility and competition for skills, from
projects have an irresistible allure, the modest janitor can now lay claim to a
six figure income out West. Fishing boats, at home, can’t attract share
men. Two paper mills have shuttered, a
third hangs on, barely.
processing, the almost singular source of employment for graying fisher people,
too old to do the bi-weekly flight to Fort McMurray, find China a worthy if
unequal competitor. If these fisher people feel forgotten, who could blame
would view public discussion, of the threat they are under, as just ‘more
talk’. Still, someone should at least ask,
not just who, but what infrastructure, services and other support systems will
survive when the mega projects out West and those at home, are done?
which civic duty and participatory democracy is fostered is a nice concept, but
it needs to be asked: do highly mobile busy people, who are making good money, ever
really feel disenfranchised?
for public engagement in public policy issues are thought to be a requirement
in modern life. Activists and policy
wonks link such open dialogue with a healthy and well-functioning liberal
life is good and prosperity abounds, who is taking stock?
Was it ever any
different in NL? Actually, yes.
and 80s, the economy was not nearly as rosy as it is now, but rural
sustainability, the fishery, impending oil developments and many other issues
preoccupied public discourse.
University set up the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) to perform
academic research; rural issues enjoyed special focus. Governments talked openly about development
and rural ‘revitalization’. They held
knew that the challenges were daunting.
Still politicians, rural developments associations and others engaged in
myriad public policy discussions and tried to figure out where, as a society,
we were heading.
days, there was a certain vibrancy to the debates; fresh out of the confining
Smallwood years, people wanted to contribute, needed to contribute; many felt
part of a mission to keep the vibrancy alive, that if it were discussed long
enough and often enough we could figure out a solution to grow our economy,
keep rural NL vibrant and preserve our culture.
past twenty years rural communities essentially evaporated with barely a
whimper. Of course, no rural development program could compensate for the
effects of the Cod Moratorium. No such program could compete either, with the
high wages of Fort McMurray.
really talk much about rural NL anymore, certainly not with the same reverence
or concern we used to. Given its
importance though, historically, socially, culturally, some might suggest that we
need to deal with rural issues or abandon that part of our society altogether,
that we should stop giving those who remain the false hope that policy makers,
or anyone else really care.
latter, then consciously, not passively or by quiet attrition, we should announce
to the remaining few that cling to our bays, that it’s over. For them and for
the Newfoundland and Labrador we have always known.
let’s be honest with ourselves and at least enquire whether it is mobility,
modernity or just our new found wealth that has encouraged passive acquiescence
to the new rural paradigm.
A few weeks ago,
I read a Telegram editorial written by a noted rural development activist in
the 80’s. At that time, he was paid
deference for his knowledge as a rural specialist. Now, evidently, he counsels
‘full steam ahead’ on Muskrat Falls, without as much as a single word on how
the remnants of rural areas might be impacted by its high cost or how cost
overruns might jeopardize the funding arrangements and other supports that small
industry reports that 30,000 pounds of yellow tail flounder, or at least 70% of
it, is destined for China’s processing facilities. Foreign draggers will be employed to harvest
the quota. Negotiations are taking place over 30% of the catch and 110 jobs. An aging workforce in Fortune, unable to
balance the ‘bigger picture’, is desperate for an answer. They don’t care that
they represent a temporary but convenient ‘offset’ for a policy which, if
implemented, is a harbinger of continued rural decline.
The public seems
inured to the fact that the once significant public company, “Fishery Products
International”, whose relative transparency and access to public markets for
funding, represented a hopeful signpost in an industry that historically has
been void of vision and leadership. The
public accepts, too, it seems, a diminished “Ocean Choice International”, that
is bereft of even the ability to harvest the small quota on offer. Not that the
public has a choice.
School District wants to close another five schools. Catalina, Swift Current,
Heart’s Delight, Whitbourne and Colliers are all on the chopping block. Another round of school closings! One more
round, this year. Will there be another
one next year, too? In the interest of education, says the School Board, as it
offers up compromise on Swift Current and Colliers.
of us’ be talking about this? What about the kids, the towns, the ‘whole community’,
not the buildings, but the ‘sense of small town’, the weave of relationships,
comprise all of them and more? Isn’t rural Newfoundland and Labrador who we
are, or have we just forgotten that essential fact in the rush to prosperity?
is, we can close more schools, but government can’t stop hiring more
bureaucrats. It does so, even in the absence of a growing population. We can
afford them, but we can’t choose to let kids grow up on a playground instead of
on a school bus.
can School Boards, no matter how well intended, make such decisions in isolation
from any responsibility for the broader social and economic picture? The School Board’s quest for ‘efficiencies’
is akin to inviting Dracula to a mortals party. They don’t regard rural
development strategies as their issue. Maybe, it’s an issue for another Board.
Perhaps, not at all!
value of keeping more rural communities intact fall, so quickly, out of our
consciousness? The prospect that our roots were never really that deep, in the
first place, is difficult to countenance.
earning power and the rarefied air we breathe on the way to Fort McMurray and,
now, closer to home can cause, not just an immodest level of passive indifference
but indeed, amnesia, too.
policy discussions are no antidote for financial invincibility.