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.

2 comments:

  1. A nicely balanced analysis.

    Part of the problem is that we, like the rest of the world under neoliberalism's heavy hand, have come to view solutions in black and white colours. The result is that patient, balanced and comprehensive discussion has been out of favour for decades. How do we change that?

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