Delegates commit to action
Vow to build on energy, ideas and optimism generated at extraordinary gathering
GEORGETOWN, P.E.I.— It’s midafternoon on Saturday, Oct. 5 and the Newfoundland and Labrador delegates who took part in a unique threeday conference in this small town on the eastern edge of Prince Edward Island are tired.
They have exited the imposing King’s Playhouse theatre, said their goodbyes to fellow delegates from other provinces, and marched up the steps to a waiting motor coach. It will take them to the Charlottetown airport, away from this picturesque town of some 700 resident in Kings County.
Many are lost in thought, some quickly fall asleep in their seats, while others talk enthusiastically about what some are calling one of the most extraordinary gatherings they have ever experienced.
“This is one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended,” says Lewisporte town manager Brian Peckford.
The assessment is similarly upbeat from Geoff Adams, chairman of the George’s Brook-Milton Local Service District near Clarenville. Adams is also artistic director for the New Curtain theatre company.
“This was one of the most amazing groups of people I’ve ever interacted with,” Adams states.
Peckford and Adams were two of some 30-plus delegates from all corners of this province to attend the Georgetown Conference — Rural Redefined from Oct. 3-5.
The conference was probably a first of its kind, bringing together more than 250 so-called doers and producers to exchange ideas about ways to reignite rural Atlantic Canada.
It was spearheaded by Newspapers Atlantic, which represents some 70 community newspapers in the Atlantic region, including The Compass in Carbonear.
The idea grew out of a worrying trend that is being felt in most rural areas as job opportunities in traditional industries such as the fishery and forestry disappear, and young people join a growing exodus for urban areas.
The hollowing out of many smaller communities is nearing crises proportions, and Georgetown organizers felt it was time to begin some serious discussions on a grander scale, with hopes of inspiring those fighting to save rural areas.
After three days of of presentations, open forums and networking — the likes of which may never have been seen before on such a regional scale — that were free of government influence, it appears the mandate of the conference was met, with many delegates saying they were recharged by the experience, and were returning home with renewed hope.
“It was a long three days, but I am coming home with a lot of energy after hearing so many success stories,” said Corey Parsons, the newly elected deputy mayor of the Town of Fortune, and one of a new generation of younger municipal leaders who have picked up the mantle of leadership.
Busting with energy
Areas like the province’s Burin Peninsula have endured more than their fair share of economic hardship in recent years, and Parsons said the steady blow of economic body shots can be demoralizing.
But he was moved by the level of leadership and commitment that remains in rural Atlantic Canada, and was proud to have had the chance to interact with so many like-minded leaders, including millionaire philanthropist Zita Cobb of Fogo Island and comedian Shaun Majumder, who is parlaying his star power and entrepreneurial spirit into a project to help revive his hometown of Burlington, a community of some 350 just north of Springdale, in Green Bay.
“I get a sense we’re all going back home busting with energy,” Parsons stated, adding that he was inspired by the many success stories he heard, and looks forward to trying to implement some of those.
The first step, he said, is to overcome what he calls a “culture of dependency.” He said many people may not like to hear it, but there’s a defeatist attitude in many communities, and it’s homegrown.
“We’re quick to point the finger at governments and others for our problems, but a lot of the times it’s challenges we’ve created ourselves,” he said.
Overcoming that negativity and finger-pointing emerged as one of the defining themes of the conference, and was drove home during a presentation by Doug Griffiths. Griffiths is a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, and author of an acclaimed book called “13 Ways to Kill Your Community.”
Many delegates felt Griffiths’ tongue- in- cheek approach to strengthening a community — from ensuring there is clean drinking water to welcoming newcomers — set the tone for the conference.
In short, attitudes have to change, said Sheila Lee, a community activist from Riverhead, a small town in St. Mary’s Bay.
“I came here feeling tired and a little discouraged, and I was starting to wonder it if was futile,” said the retired school teacher.
“But I really think we can change the tide, and after coming here this weekend, and being part of such a vibrant, positive group of people who believe we can and we will, I feel totally re-energized.”
Like others, Lee is committed to challenging the “defeatists” in small communities, and has completely bought into the message from Griffiths that “attitude is 90 per cent of it.”
Spreading the message
Lee said it’s important that delegates fan out and spread the word: there is a future for rural areas.
To be sure, no one waved a magic wand and came up with the answer for all rural communities. But the number of success stories proved that good things are possible, given the right amount of determination, attitude and luck, said Geoff Adams.
“If they can achieve it, then so can we,” Adams said of some of the successful entrepreneurs and leaders who took to the stage in Georgetown.
“But I have to say this, and pardon the expression, but we have to get off the government tit. And the only way is to do it ourselves.
“We’ve been handed a toolkit at this conference, and this kit is invaluable in that it is other peoples’ experiences and ideas from other parts of the country.” Youth empowerment Delegates were encouraged by the strong youth contingent at the conference, and there was plenty of talk about how young people are the future of rural communities.
Majumder chaired a session featuring a quartet of youth leaders, and accidentally coined the phrase “go big and go home.” The phrase resonated with delegates.
“This youth movement is already underway,” said Corey Parsons, noting that a new generation of young leaders are slowly rising to the forefront at the municipal level.
Amid the energy and enthusiasm, however, was a sobering dose of reality from prominent pollster Don Mills of Corporate Research Associates.
He said rural areas have a heavy reliance on seasonal industries, wage increases have not kept up with the rate of inflation, and he referenced an “entitlement culture” in many areas.
He said the gross domestic product in the region is shrinking, hindering our ability to fund services such as education and health care, and the population is dropping at a troubling pace.
He said the Canadian population grew by 22 per cent over the past two decades, while the population in Atlantic Canada shrunk by two per cent.
“There is very little overall confidence in the future of rural communities,” he said.
But delegates were not deterred by Mills’ message, preferring instead to focus on success stories such as St. Anthony Basin Resources Inc. (SABRI), which was established in 1997 after the federal government granted a special allocation of 3,000 tonnes of northern shrimp to 16 communities on the tip of the Northern Peninsula.
SABRI has invested lucrative royalties from that allocation back into the region, helping reverse what had been a bleak situation.
The fishery has rebounded in the St. Anthony area, and now SABRI is turning its attention to the tourism industry.
SABRI board chairman Wayne Noel raved about his experience in Georgetown, and was especially proud of the role played by Newfoundlanders like Zita Cobb and Shaun Majumder.
“It goes to show we can do anything if we want to and obviously we can compete with the rest of the provinces,” Noel said.