Towns shouldn’t be kept on life sup­port

The Compass - - OPINION - Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Me­dia’s At­lantic Re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­; his col­umn ap­pears on Tues­days, Thurs­days and Satur­days in TC Me­dia’s daily pa­pers.

“I was won­der­ing if ... you are brave (or crazy) enough to write a col­umn on the sub­ject I am sug­gest­ing.”

Now, there’s an in­trigu­ing start to an email.

It came to me in early Jan­uary, from a Nova Sco­tian reader frus­trated by what he saw as gov­ern­ment waste:

“(Per­haps) it is time that Nova Sco­tia took the ini­tia­tive that Joey Small­wood did more than half a cen­tury ago. I sug­gest that many of our small com­mu­ni­ties (half?) through­out the prov­ince sim­ply cease to ex­ist — bull­dozed, homes moved and the pop­u­la­tion moved to neigh­bour­ing com­mu­ni­ties whereby the pop­u­la­tion would be built up to a vi­able level. To take Mid­dle­ton, Bridgetown, An­napo­lis Royal, we re­ally do not need three state-of-the-art wa­ter and sewer sys­tems for three com­mu­ni­ties in rel­a­tive close prox­im­ity.”

It’s an abrupt so­lu­tion to an ob­vi­ous prob­lem.

In Nova Sco­tia and other Mar­itime prov­inces, small, cen­tral­ized towns used to serve the sur­round­ing ar­eas as com­mer­cial and busi­ness hubs. With im­prove­ments in roads and trans­porta­tion (and with changes, for ex­am­ple, in agri­cul­ture to larger op­er­a­tions), those hubs are not as nec­es­sary, nor as suc­cess­ful.

Lo­cal smaller busi­nesses and whole­salers fail, shop­pers move to re­gion­al­ized big-box hubs with cheaper prices, and the cost bur­dens on be­lea­guered town coun­cils grow.

Yet the towns lum­ber on, some­times as shad­ows of their for­mer selves, with help from pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments who shore them up with a va­ri­ety of kinds of mu­nic­i­pal fund­ing. The causes can be dif­fer­ent — in New­found­land and Labrador, and in some parts of other At­lantic prov­inces, a widely dis­persed in­shore fish­ery led to nu­mer­ous towns run­ning vir­tu­ally all around the edge of the prov­ince, like a hem on a skirt — but the re­sult is the same.

The prob­lem, of course, is what hap­pens when the re­source that drives those towns — es­pe­cially the small­est ones — dis­ap­pears.

The writer is cor­rect: whether it’s fish, forestry or small-town ser­vice in­dus­tries, there comes a time when you have to start ques­tion­ing the viability of towns, if not the viability of con­tin­ued pro­vin­cial sup­port for them.

Pa­per mill towns and min­ing towns have known the truth for gen­er­a­tions. Gov­ern­ment can’t re­place in­dus­try — it es­pe­cially can’t re­place re­source­based in­dus­try — and it shouldn’t even try. Should pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments ac­tively shut towns down? Prob­a­bly not — all re­set­tle­ment did in New­found­land was cre­ate a fo­cus for op­po­si­tion. It was seen as “some­thing the gov­ern­ment is do­ing to us,” and it re­mains that way, even gen­er­a­tions later.

As well, bulldozing half the small com­mu­ni­ties in a prov­ince is some- thing no gov­ern­ment that de­pends on ru­ral-based voter sup­port will ever un­der­take. The words “one-term won­der” spring to mind.

But na­ture should be al­lowed to take its course.

When gov­ern­ments look at prop­ping up town ser­vices over the short­term, they should also prag­mat­i­cally con­sider the long-term. As hard a mes­sage as it is, a town with no rea­son to be is prob­a­bly a town that shouldn’t be.

If your town lives by the re­source, it can — and should, prob­a­bly — also die by that same re­source. Gov­ern­ments don’t need to bring in the bull­doz­ers: they re­ally only have to have enough po­lit­i­cal will to turn off the taps.

Photo by An­drew Robin­son/The Compass

TRUCK CRASHES THROUGH SIGN — This Ford truck de­stroyed a wooden sign on a windy Tues­day hon­our­ing Vic­to­ria’s past suc­cess in a Tidy Towns com­pe­ti­tion. The driver re­port­edly lost con­trol of the ve­hi­cle, which was head­ing to­wards Vic­to­ria at the time of the ac­ci­dent and came to a stop fac­ing Car­bon­ear. Dam­age to the truck was sub­stan­tial. The driver ap­peared to be un­harmed, but was taken to Car­bon­ear Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal for ob­ser­va­tion.

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