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.

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