Some of the challenges undermining the strength of our rural communities
flow from deliberate interventions in the economy over the years by governments
at all levels. If governments have created many of the conditions that
damage rural sustainability and viability, they also have the power and
the obligation to intervene in ways that strengthen these communities and
enable them to survive and thrive in the modern world. This article argues
that rural communities have an indispensable role to play in the economy,
and there is nothing natural about letting them die.
The city of St. Johns is a wonderful community and Newfoundlands largest
urban centre. With a population creeping towards 200,000 it is fairly small
by North American standards, yet huge in the provincial context. About
two of every five people live on the northeast Avalon. The region is like
a magnet, drawing people from our rural communities into the city with
its wealth of opportunities.
But St. Johns is not the place to go if you want to see firsthand the challenges
facing our rural communities. You have to come to places like the Bonavista
Peninsula. It is the place John Cabot made landfall in 1497 on his vessel
The Matthew which, he reported, was slowed down by the massive schools
of fish reaching far out from our coasts. From the 1490s to the 1990s,
the Bonavista Peninsula prospered from the bounty of one of the richest
fishing grounds on the entire planet. But in the early nineties, when the
Government of Canada imposed a moratorium on cod fishing in the face of
drastically depleted stocks, the Bonavista Peninsulas circumstances changed,
as did the circumstances of hundreds of other communities throughout Newfoundland
and Labrador. The district of Bonavista South, with an entire population
of approximately 13,000 endured the loss of over 2000 jobs in the fish
processing sector alone.
In St. Johns the official unemployment rate as reported by Statistics Canada
is around 10 per cent. In my region, the official rate is double that;
and in some communities in my district, the unemployment rate is above
80 per cent. And remember that those official rates do not include the
people who have given up searching for jobs they know do not exist or those
who have moved away in search of opportunities they cannot find at home.
Many have moved to St. Johns. Many others have left our province altogether.
Since the early nineties, Newfoundland and Labrador has lost over 10 per
cent of its population.
Some may ask why not just let the trend continue? Why prop up rural economies
when opportunities exist in our growing urban centres? Why not let our
rural communities die a natural death?
The economist, E.F. Schumacher, penned the famous work entitled Small is
Beautiful . He wrote about ways and means to strengthen the small community
and make it viable. He wrote about the limitations that we all know too
well, but he also wrote about the opportunities that too often are missed.
He said: Perhaps we cannot raise the winds. But each of us can put up
the sail, so that when the wind comes we can catch it. This perspective
means a lot to me as a resident of a rural community and as a Newfoundland
and Labrador parliamentarian.
It is no accident that we have hundreds of communities dotting the shores
along Newfoundland and Labradors coasts and rivers. The fish brought most
of our ancestors here, but nature threw every manner of adversity up against
the settlers to make life interesting wars, disease, storms, famine,
abject poverty, you name it. Only the stubborn could survive here, so not
surprisingly, stubbornness has become a mark of character in these parts.
And it may therefore be tempting to think many people remain in our rural
communities simply because they are too stubborn to make a better choice.
But I would put it another way. People whose families have survived here
for generations are too stubborn to believe that the opportunities to sustain
our communities have all been used up. How could any sane person look around
Newfoundland and Labrador and not see the vast multitude of opportunities
on which survival and sustainability can be grounded for generations to
Yes, the cod continue to be in trouble, but consider the shellfish that
abound in our waters.
Consider the numerous species other than groundfish and the opportunities
to replace depleted stocks through aquaculture.
Consider the opportunities to extract greater value from the fish and other
resources we harvest.
Consider the forests that sustain our logging, lumber and paper operations.
Consider the opportunities to replace trees through silviculture.
Consider our minerals, with new finds being discovered year by year in
Consider the hydro power, the oil and gas, and the bounty of other natural
resource opportunities that we can harness.
Consider the age-old skills Newfoundlanders and Labradorians developed
by constructing vessels for the sea.
At Bull Arm, approximately 150 km from Bonavista, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians
built what Time Magazine called the eighth wonder of the modern world,
the Hibernia platform. We have proven that we can build big, but we also
remember how to build small. Tiny manufacturing enterprises offer huge
opportunities for small communities; and also small opportunities that,
working together, can have a huge impact.
In Fogo on our northeast coast, they manufacture quilts. The ancient skills
and traditions passed down from generation to generation have provided
an opportunity to sustain rural families through our handicrafts sector.
In Labrador, some extremely talented Aboriginal artists are sustaining
themselves through first-rate soapstone carvings that capture attention
around the world. Our provinces cultural industries are thriving as never
before. Artists are beginning to utilize new technologies in exciting ways,
and we are beginning to appreciate the economic value of activities that
were once regarded as pastimes.
Technologies such as the internet and other mass-media communications tools
have begun to bridge gaps in ways that railways, highways and skyways did
many decades ago. It is interesting that Marshall McLuhan described this
interconnectedness as the global village, a term with strong rural overtones.
Technologies from radio to telephone to television to the worldwide web
have enabled all of our tiny, remote villages, along with our larger communities,
to function as a single village that transcends space and time. There are
even people who tele-commute to work, thriving in the global village
without actually going to the office.
There are children in our province who tele-commute to school, at least
for certain subjects. Technology connects them to teachers and fellow students
across great distances in real time. Indeed, with realtime web connections,
email, instant messaging, internet chat rooms, online video gaming and
a host of other emerging technologies, young people in rural areas no longer
feel the remoteness that defined their great-grandparents. They may not
have a McDonalds or a Wal-Mart down the street, but they can chat with
other kids in urban and rural communities around the world and feel that
they are an integral part of what is going on. They are connected. They
are virtually urban in their outlook (not to mention in their music and
And while it may be painful for them to be unable to finish the night with
a Quarter Pounder with fries, how many children around the world can breathe
clean, fresh air while hiking safely across barrens behind their homes
and hear the waves washing gently against the shores? I will take that
over traffic noises any day of the week!
In rural communities, you usually know your neighbours, and neighbours
usually look out for one another. Economists call it the underground economy,
but the term does not really do justice to the cooperative spirit it tries
to describe. Canada would not be Canada without this cooperative spirit,
this eagerness to pitch in. Perhaps it would be better called the potluck
economy, where each benefits from the strengths of the others. I believe
Canada owes this strong tradition to the rural communities that have predominated
here. It is this very tradition that lies at the root of our Medicare system
an appreciation of the fact that we are all in this together, so we must
I shudder to think what will become of us if this cooperative spirit is
eroded. If we pretend the erosion of our rural communities is something
that we cannot or should not address, then I believe we risk changing Canada
The survival of the rural community in our increasingly urbanized world
is a challenge that all Canadians must address together, because we will
all suffer together if we do nothing.
Over ninety-five per cent of Canadas natural and environmental resources
are located in rural Canada. Many of Canadas major industries agriculture,
fishing, forestry, mining and energy rely on rural communities. These
communities and their industries are a wellspring of strength and vitality
for many urban centres. Twenty-two per cent of GNP and 33 per cent of resource-based
industries rely on rural communities. If urban centres think they are insulated
from rural Canadas suffering, they should prepare for a rude reality check.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, over 54 per cent of the population lives
in communities with 5,000 people or less a percentage far in excess of
the national average. So our exposure to challenges affecting the viability
and sustainability of rural Canada is even greater. If rural Canada is
left to shrivel and die, the effects will be felt here the hardest. But
if we undertake collectively to find new and innovative ways to breathe
new life into rural Canada then Newfoundland and Labrador is the perfect
incubator in which to put those initiatives to work. If it works here,
then it works period!
The Infrastructure Challenge
In Newfoundland and Labrador, as in some other areas, transportation is
a key infrastructure challenge. Sir John A. Macdonald recognized that constructing
a rail line from west of the Rockies to eastern Canada was an investment
in Canadas viability and sustainability as a nation. It was enormously
expensive, but far cheaper than the alternative of letting the idea of
Canada disintegrate into a collection of remote, disconnected states. The
initiative opened up new opportunities for our rural communities, allowing
rural agricultural producers and timber producers and manufacturers of
all sorts to trade with one another. In fact, solid transportation infrastructure
freed people to live in cities because it assured them of their supplies
of raw materials from the hinterlands. If those transportation networks
are left to erode, then Canada as a whole will suffer in terms of productivity
and competitiveness though the suffering will be felt first and worst
in the rural communities whose infrastructure has been neglected. I believe
as a nation we need to revisit the thinking of Canadas first Prime Minister
and share the burden of bringing the countrys transportation network into
the 21st century.
Infrastructure also means power wires, telephone wires, cables, various
wireless technologies and everything that makes these utilities functional.
Our province is witnessing a revolution in broadband accessibility, which
means a great deal to the success of rural communities like mine. We are
pursuing new opportunities to generate power to propel the industries of
tomorrow. Prince Edward Island has applied the small is beautiful principle
in a big way by focusing on opportunities for local wind power generation.
Power attracts opportunities, and clean renewable power such as Lower
Churchill power can attract opportunities that are sustainable over the
Infrastructure is essential to economic diversification, and diversification
is integral to sustainability. A region is best-positioned for survival
if it has many oars in the water at once. I applaud our government and
all governments that are making the investment in infrastructure to serve
rural areas, because it is not only an investment in sustainability, but
a vote of confidence in the people who live there.
The Education Challenge
The CBCs The Passionate Eye recently aired a documentary hosted by Lisa
Moore and Mary Walsh entitled Hard Rock and Water, a comparison of Newfoundland
and Labrador, which surrendered independence in 1949, and Iceland, which
asserted its independence at about the same time. One point not lost on
the hosts is the fact that Icelands literacy rate is 100 per cent. In
Newfoundland and Labrador, as in other parts of Canada, we envy that statistic
and wonder how our lives would be different if we could match it.
But delivering broad-ranging, high-quality education to the residents of
small, remote rural communities is a challenge. The problem has been compounded
here by the loss of young families following the cod moratorium and the
declining birth rate that is partly related to this loss of young families.
In the near future, rural Newfoundland and Labrador is projected to experience
more deaths than births. Our provinces source population, those over 15,
is shrinking and aging to such an extent that, by 2008, it is expected
that seniors will outnumber youth.
If you can afford to have four teachers for 100 students in a rural community,
how many teachers can you afford to have when the number of students drops
to 75 or 50 or 25? It is difficult to reduce the number of teaching
units without affecting the range of curriculum or the quality of the educational
experience. In this province, there is a small schools policy that insulates
some schools from the loss of teaching units that would otherwise occur
based on population decline. Our boards have been attempting to manage
this demographic shift through reorganization. The new technologies I discussed
earlier are also of tremendous benefit to rural students who would otherwise
not have easy access to certain curricula. But there is no way to sugar-coat
the reality that the shrinking number of children in widely-dispersed rural
communities is presenting a challenge to parliamentarians who realize that
a highly-educated population is a prerequisite to viable and sustainable
communities. We need to find new ways to cooperate in the delivery of education
so that our young people are prepared to embrace the opportunities that
will bring prosperity to their communities.
The government in this province recently announced its policies on public
post-secondary education, and emphasized the need to maintain public colleges
in the rural and larger centres that now have them. These colleges provide
a focal point for higher education and skills development; they help to
attract investors and employers; and they can also draw in and develop
expertise from which our school system can benefit.
In the St. Johns metropolitan area, we recently witnessed a stellar success
that was grounded in this very type of cooperation. High school students
of our Eastern School District paired with students of our universitys
Marine Institute to develop a remotely-operated robotic vehicle that they
entered in a competition at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory of the famed
NASA Johnson Space Center at Houston, Texas. Competing against schools
from across the United States and another from Canada, the local team brought
home first place overall, first place in robot performance, first place
in engineering panel presentation, first place in engineering display,
first place in teamwork and professionalism, and first place in motion
This is proof of the power of cooperation, and I believe we are imaginative
enough to find other ways to harness this power to the benefit of our rural
students and their communities. We owe it to rural students to help them
discover and develop their unique talents so that all of Canada can benefit
from the application of those talents. Environmentalists tell us we suffer
when rainforest clear-cutting eradicates species from the planet that could
hold the cures to major diseases. How much more do we all suffer when a
young persons potential is ignored? No one benefits when talents that
could serve humanity are left undiscovered and undeveloped.
The Future of Rural Canada
In a rural area of western Newfoundland, there is a new internationally
award-winning, first-class resort that has attracted wealthy buyers from
across Europe and around the world buyers who want to enjoy Newfoundland
and Labradors rural lifestyle even though they have enough wealth to live
virtually anywhere they choose. Along our coastline, Americans have been
buying up rural properties with a vengeance. Many can not believe that
more people do not realize the value of what we have here. It is only now
that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are beginning to truly appreciate
the value of our rural environment and way of life.
We have something worth boasting about and something worth sustaining here.
And there are rural communities all across Canada that can make that same
boast. We are a nation of best-kept secrets. It is time that, collectively,
we invested in these best-kept secrets in order to allow the people who
live there to capitalize on the benefits in ways that sustain viable communities.
Only people with very small imaginations and cookie-cutter mentalities
fail to appreciate the opportunities that rural sustainability can provide.
I believe a nation of cities where everyone lives in concrete cubicles
stacked upon one another is not what Canada wants to be or should be. It
is not really who we are and it is certainly not who we are in Newfoundland
There are some who would say we should instead be quaking in our boots
at the prospect of Chinas billion-people economy swallowing the world
and destroying our beneficial trade arrangements with cheap labour. But
the people of China simply want to survive and thrive as do we, as do the
people of Africa and South America and the rest of the world. In many of
these places, the village is the norm, as it has long been in Canada. As
we learn better ways to sustain our own villages, we can export our knowledge
to other villages around the world, building partnerships that encompass
the globe and raise the standard of living in regions poorer than our own.
This is a more positive approach to global village development than the
path that some would have us on. But if we lose the village and the sense
of sharing and compassion that it engenders, then what kind of world will
we have? What kind of people will our great-grandchildren be?