Wednesday, 7 February 2018

It’s Time to Have a Talk About Rural Newfoundland & Labrador

It’s Time to Have a Talk About Rural Newfoundland & Labrador

By: Ryan Young

It’s time to have a talk about rural Newfoundland & Labrador. Actually, it is about twenty years past the time when we needed to start talking about issues in rural areas of the province, but here we are, and better late than never I suppose.

If you pay attention to the news, you’ll know that a recent school board decision has allowed several schools to stay open, despite dwindling enrollments. This has caused quite a buzz on social media, with sentiment predictably split between those who beg to recognize the cultural value of rural areas and those who would rather we move now to stop the bleed on the provincial treasury and move everyone out of the smallest towns, or at least turn the lights out until they are ready to leave themselves.

It is a tricky discussion. The province is in dire financial straights and needs to find savings everywhere it can, but it also depends on a billion-dollar tourism industry that markets rural charm to draw the world in. Finding the right balance between crunching numbers and evaluating the cultural value of our outport communities is key to our future success. We can’t afford to keep slashing services based on balance sheets alone, but we also can’t afford to do nothing. An aging population spread over such a large geographical area have already left many holes in services provided to rural residents and with the absence of a long-term plan we can expect things to get worse before they get better.

We all know that many of our smaller communities will not last another generation. Many never really recovered after the moratorium, leaving plenty of towns with no children, and no hope to be able to hang on far into the future. Other areas, however, have some great potential for growth and are holding steady, if not thriving, despite the challenges. The real hard part is deciding where that threshold is, and how we chart the course as we move forward.

The decision by the school board to keep those seven schools open was a surprising one for many, and it has many people divided on the issue. But in the absence of a long-term plan, I think it was the only responsible decision they could have made at this time. Student safety must remain first and foremost and busing a handful of students for two hours each day is not a responsible option, even if we need to crunch our dollars. A rural town with children is a town that still has a chance at survival, and we need to think very hard about which of those communities we want to abandon, and which ones have the potential to grow and help to support themselves. In the case of schools, maybe we need to change the delivery model for education in rural communities. Online learning is already heavily utilized in these smaller schools, and with such small numbers perhaps there are options that can be looked at that do not involve the overhead cost of maintaining large old buildings. Most residents in small communities know that they will have to make sacrifices in order to live where they want to be, and it is worth exploring what options might be available before we decide to close the doors and turn out the lights.

It’s easy to look at things like schools and ferry services to many small communities and wonder if it is worth the money when so many other things are getting cut. If we are going to weigh the negatives though, should we not also look at the positives and the potential value in our rural communities? This is a great opportunity for our province to reinvent itself and invest in rural communities in a meaningful way. While the fishery may be going through some tough times, it is far from dead, and with proper management and cooperation from Ottawa we could help to restore the inshore fishery and ensure that many communities still have a future. Instead of looking for smallwood-esque outside intervention and new industries to bring in, maybe we should focus on finding new ways to utilize the resources and industry expertise that we already have. We know we need to grow our agricultural capacity and our tourism industry continues to thrive. Add in the forestry industry and you have a very solid foundation to start re-building the rural economy.

A focus on young entrepreneurship in rural areas is also key. Many industries, especially fishing, are facing a quickly aging workforce and we need new regulations that encourage youth to become involved. Getting young people involved in business innovation, especially in areas such as tourism and agriculture would also be a great way to keep our youth here in the province. Things like offering specialized training at the college/university level and expanding support for the creation of new business ventures are just a few ways we could retain youth and grow the rural economy.

I could go on, but my point is that there is still hope for much of rural Newfoundland & Labrador, but we need a realistic plan to figure out the best ways and best places to invest. We need to create a strategy for how we plan to deal with our rural issues and develop some measurable goals and expected outcomes that we can look to to determine our progress. Regionalization needs to be a big part of the conversation, but not the added layer of bureaucracy that our current government has proposed. If we are going to be serious we need to create a system that shifts the power from each tiny town council and directly into the regional structure. Once such a regional structure is in place, we can begin the hard work of determining where services should be located and where investment dollars should flow. Decisions would have to consider the current situation, as well as plans for growth for the future.

It will be sad to see us lose many beautiful communities over the next generation, but if we do the hard work now, we might be able to do it in a way that is less painless, and is an overall benefit to rural Newfoundland & Labrador and the province as a whole. It will require long-term thinking that goes beyond the usual political attention span of 4 years, but if we take the energy we are using to argue over schools and ferries and use it to demand that government develop a real strategic plan for our rural areas then maybe, just maybe we might force our elected overlords to begin a real conversation on the issue.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018



By; Ryan Young

It seems like the only time I want to break away from the worlds of work and family life to give the Rogue Bayman a voice lately, is directly following a Friday evening press release from government. The release from last Friday regarding the dismissal of NL Liquor Corporation CEO Steve Winter has been predictably ill received, and it makes me wonder how the Liberal’s still have not learned their lesson.

The whole issue is tricky to write about as it is saturated with side stories and political innuendo. As was the same with the Canopy Grow announcement before Christmas, instead of being upfront and factual with us about what is going on up on the hill, the government opted to do the late Friday release thing and hope that it would disappear or blow over long before they would be forced to answer any questions on Monday morning.

Unfortunately for the Liberal’s, by the time Paddy Daly had finished his opening monologue, the phone lines were lighting up with cynical citizens and opposing politicians chomping at the bit to lash out at the government for its obvious political patronage. By the time Tom Osborne was able to get his staff at finance to draft a statement for him to deliver to the public, the damage had already been done, with social media playing judge, jury, and executioner.

If one is willing to dig a little deeper than the obvious rhetoric and look at the facts, maybe getting rid of Winter and shaking things up a bit at the NLC was not a bad thing. Mr. Winter certainly did a fine job in a financial sense. He was able to constantly keep profits up and transformed the NLC into one of the top organizations in Atlantic Canada as recognized by being a regular name of the list of top 50 Atlantic Canadian CEO’s. On the other hand, organizations such as RANL and individual liquor license holders have long complained about antiquated liquor laws and rules within the NLC. Certainly, Winter can’t be blamed for legislative shortcomings, but as a veteran CEO he seemed unwilling to be a catalyst for any of the change that was desired by business owners throughout the province.

According to Minister Osborne, Winter was not comfortable with the implementation of the new plan to regulate legal marijuana and that played a big part in the CEO’s departure. With only months to go before legalization, that would certainly give the government reason for concern, and a very good reason to replace Winter at the top. The pot plan seems to be one of the few files that the Liberal’s actually seem committed to doing a good job with, and it should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to how things have progressed, that anyone not on board with the plan would be shown the door.

That brings us back around to our most popular theme here on the Rogue Bayman, openness and transparency…or a lack thereof. If Osborne’s comments about Winter’s opposition to marijuana legislation are true, then why not wait till Monday morning and come out with a proper release and be willing to answer questions to explain the decision? Why play so many of the same games that always backfire and end up with people having even more scorn and distrust towards the government? In a bizarre twist, the former CFO at NLC, Sharon Sparks, will now be replacing Winter, even though she was fired by him just last month. Did government not think people would have questions about that? And what about former Liberal candidate Lynn Sullivan being appointed to Sparks’ now vacant CFO position? I guess they didn’t think that was worth mentioning either.

Instead of getting out in front of the story and explaining their decision with rational discussion, they decided to once again push aside promises of openness and transparency and hope that nobody noticed or cared. It would be shameful for any government to act this way, but it is especially hard to swallow when it comes from a government whose whole campaign hinged on promising to be more open and accountable. Either the communication staff in the Liberal office is the worst in history, or the ministers themselves are too stubborn to take good advice or at least stop repeating the same mistakes. It seems like this government is not able to pass up a chance to make themselves look bad.

Even though we want to be mad at the Liberal’s, we shouldn’t be mad because Winter was fired or because Sparks got the job. Also, we should not be shocked at Sullivan’s patronage appointment, as we know that is just how things are done in politics. What we should really be mad at, is the fact that our government thinks we are either a) too stupid to understand or b) that we don’t deserve to know about the decisions that are supposedly being made in the best interests of the province. We should be mad that they have such an aversion to telling us the truth that they are willing to continuously put themselves on the defensive rather than to give us the full facts without having to be dragged out of them.

In the age of social media and digital ATIPP requests, the government can’t hide from these sorts of decisions. What they could do, however, is start being straight with us about why decisions are being made. Lard tunderin by’s just try it out once. It might even feel good…