NL del­e­gates en­cour­aged by Ge­orge­town

Con­fer­ence aimed at redefin­ing ru­ral At­lantic Canada should be launchpad for re­newed hope, they say


GE­ORGE­TOWN, P.E.I. — Two women from Car­bon­ear who at­tended the Ge­orge­town Con­fer­ence here last week both agree the event was worth­while, and should serve as a cat­a­lyst for re­newed hope and en­ergy for those who be­lieve there is a fu­ture for ru­ral ar­eas of At­lantic Canada.

Kerri Ab­bott and Florence But­ton joined some 250 other so-called “do­ers and producers” from At­lantic Canada at this quaint, pic­turesque town in King’s County, on the east­ern edge of Prince Ed­ward Is­land.

They were part of a solid con­tin­gent of some two dozen peo­ple from Canada’s most east­erly prov­ince, all of whom share a view that there is a fu­ture for ru­ral ar­eas, but also un­der­stand the chal­lenges are sub­stan­tial.

“To ac­tu­ally come here and talk about the ideas and the strug­gles and to hear how other peo­ple have found the nec­es­sary re­siliency, it’s re­fresh­ing,” said Ab­bott, a com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment worker and avid vol­un­teer.

For But­ton, the de­ci­sion to at­tend Ge­orge­town came nat­u­rally. She’s been vol­un­teer­ing since she was 14 years-of-age, and has played a lead­ing role on many fronts as Car­bon­ear strug­gled with eco­nomic down­turns — and much-needed up­swings — over the years.

“This is a very mean­ing­ful step into the fu­ture,” But­ton said of the con­fer­ence, which was spear­headed by News­pa­pers At­lantic, which rep­re­sents some 70 com­mu­nity news­pa­pers in the At­lantic re­gion, in­clud­ing The Com­pass.

Ru­ral heart­beat

The con­fer­ence fea­tured a broad cross-sec­tion of pre­sen­ters from many back­grounds and spe­cial­ties, and an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of del­e­gates who rep­re­sent what some de­scribed as the heart­beat of many ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties. They in­cluded busi­ness, vol­un­teer and mu­nic­i­pal lead­ers from ev­ery re­gion of At­lantic Canada, com­ing to­gether in an at­mos­phere free of gov­ern­ment or cor­po­rate in­flu­ence.

The open­ing ses­sion on Thurs­day kicked off what was a lively and nec­es­sary ex­change of ideas and ob­ser­va­tions, all fo­cused on a wor­ry­ing trend — the hal­low­ing out of ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties as op­por­tu­ni­ties in tra­di­tional in­dus­tries such as the fish­ery and forestry van­ish, and younger peo­ple join a grow­ing ex­o­dus to­wards ur­ban ar­eas.

There was a strong New­found­land and Labrador flavour at the con­fer­ence, with Donna Butt, artis­tic di­rec­tor of Ris­ing Tide The­atre in Trin­ity, serv­ing as one of the four con­fer­ence co-chairs.

One of the more in­trigu­ing pre­sen­ters to take the stage was mil­lion­aire phi­lan­thropist Zita Cobb from Fogo Is­land, founder of the Shore­fast Foun­da­tion, which has made in­ter­na­tional head­lines in re­cent months for its ef­forts to pro­tect the cul­tural tra­di­tions of Fogo Is­land, and add “another leg” to its fish­ery based econ­omy.

With very few ex­cep­tions, those in at­ten­dance at the con­fer­ence be­lieve in their com­mu­ni­ties, and are not pre­pared to sit idle.

Cobb said it’s peo­ple like this that will make the dif­fer­ence, and she en­cour­aged those with ru­ral roots, and those who have ben­e­fited from ru­ral places, to “come to the ta­ble.”

Butt said it’s vi­tal that we “reimag­ine our com­mu­ni­ties,” and she sug­gested a move­ment be launched to bring the plight of ru­ral ar­eas to the fore­front, much like the fight for uni­ver­sal health care cap­tured the Cana­dian imag­i­na­tion sev­eral gen­er­a­tions ago.

“They have to know we were hear,” Butt said. “We’re in cri­sis, but let’s fight this bat­tle, and let’s win this bat­tle.”

Churence Rogers, pres­i­dent of Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties New­found­land and Labrador and mayor of Cen­tre­villeWare­ham-Trin­ity, was also in at­ten­dance.

Drawn to home

Or­ga­niz­ers were de­scrib­ing the con­fer­ence as a good ex­am­ple of how re­gions can work to­gether to form part­ner­ships, share ideas and in­ject new en­ergy into a strug­gle that strikes to the very core of ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties.

It’s what at­tracted Kerri Ab­bott and Florence But­ton to Ge­orge­town.

“I’m feel­ing hope­ful,” Ab­bott said dur­ing a break in the pro­ceed­ings on Fri­day, Oct. 4.

Ab­bott works with not-for-profit ini­tia­tives such as the food bank and fam­ily re­source cen­tre, and is pas­sion­ate about is­sues such as af­ford­able hous­ing and se­niors’ care.

Like many from ru­ral towns, she moved away af­ter fin­ish­ing her ed­u­ca­tion and started a ca­reer in a larger cen­tre.

But she felt drawn back to her home­town, and an­swered that call­ing.

“I had a good job, but I al­ways missed home,” she said.

She ad­mit­ted it’s not as easy to earn a liv­ing in Car­bon­ear, but aded, “I’ve as­sessed that I want qual­ity of life, not qual­ity of in­come.

“The fact that I know the lady who is check­ing me in at the gro­cery store all my life … and I can have those gen­uine in­ter­ac­tions is some­thing I missed when I was in big cities.”

For Ab­bott, one of the big­gest chal­lenges fac­ing ru­ral ar­eas is a per­cep­tion there is no hope.

“We have to get rid of that ac­cep­tance,” she said.

Through­out the three-day event,

I have great hopes for se­niors and youth work­ing to­gether. Each can learn from

the other.

— Car­bon­ear del­e­gate Florence But­ton

which ran from Oct. 3-5, Ab­bott and Butt net­worked with oth­ers at the con­fer­ence and quickly dis­cov­ered that, gen­er­ally speak­ing, the chal­lenges are uni­ver­sal.

But­ton said it was in­vig­o­rat­ing to hear from ex­perts and those at the grass­roots level, all ex­press­ing ideas and hope, though with a healthy dose of re­al­ity.

Youth and ex­pe­ri­ence

But­ton has ex­pe­ri­enced that re­al­ity, most no­tably the cod fish­ery col­lapse more than 20 years ago. There was a sense of des­per­a­tion in Car­bon­ear and area at the time, and it was fol­lowed by the clo­sure of M. A. Pow­ell Ltd., a ma­jor em­ployer in the re­gion.

But­ton never suc­cumbed to the neg­a­tiv­ity, and con­tin­ued to push for­ward, with a spe­cial in­ter­est in the­atre, tourism, com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment, and the role of youth and se­niors in the com­mu­nity.

“I think we’ve built on all of that tremen­dously,” she said of the op­ti­mism and growth that seems to have been in­jected into Con­cep­tion Bay North in re­cent years.

But­ton be­lieves that syn­ergy be­tween young peo­ple and those with life ex­pe­ri­ence is a re­source that needs to be bet­ter uti­lized if ru­ral ar­eas have any hope of sur­vival.

“I have great hopes for se­niors and youth work­ing to­gether. Each can learn from the other,” she said. “I think we need to be look­ing closely at bring­ing those two groups to­gether more of­ten.”

Mean­while, Churence Rogers de­scribed the work be­ing done by peo­ple like Cobb and Butt as “over­whelm­ing,” and feels that a gath­er­ing like Ge­orge­town was long over­due and was per­haps the cat­a­lyst to a re­newed and co-op­er­a­tive ef­fort to map out a strat­egy for the redefin­ing of ru­ral At­lantic Canada.

“It’s re­fresh­ing and there’s some real value to what’s be­ing talked about here,” Rogers said.

He was es­pe­cially moved by sug­ges­tions that young peo­ple have to be en­cour­aged to in­vest in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, and he be­lieves there are op­por­tu­ni­ties in ar­eas such as hous­ing for se­niors.

There has been tremen­dous change in ru­ral Canada over the past decade, and peo­ple like Rogers and oth­ers have no al­lu­sions that ma­jor changes are yet to come. Rogers said the real ques­tion is how do peo­ple adapt and man­age those changes.

“That’s the chal­lenge for us as mu­nic­i­pal lead­ers,” he said.

Florence But­ton agreed, and added: “I have great hopes for this con­fer­ence, that it’s the be­gin­ning of some­thing that’s go­ing to con­tinue. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t be­lieve that we’re mak­ing a start here.”

Photo by Terry Roberts/The Com­pass

Kerri Ab­bott (left) and Florence But­ton of Car­bon­ear were among the roughly 250 peo­ple from through­out At­lantic Canada who gath­ered in Ge­orge­town, Prince Ed­ward Is­land for a three-day con­fer­ence last week dis­cussing the fu­ture of ru­ral ar­eas.

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