THRIVING OR JUST SURVIVING? WHAT’S AT PLAY IN ATLANTIC CANADA’S RURAL OUTPOSTS?
It’s not a situation that’s unique to Atlantic Canada.
As the Baby Boomer generation ages and retires, and birth rates have declined, the rural landscape is changing.
The question is: What will happen if younger people don’t choose to live rural communities?
Who will work in the mines and forests, till the soil, run the fishing boat or keep the service industries running? Or will rural communities exist at all?
At universities across Atlantic Canada, sociologists and economists have been exploring this question for decades; watching and analyzing as rural regions evolve and change.
What they have concluded is there is no one factor that will determine whether rural communities will live, thrive or die.
The future relies on many scenarios.
Dr. Karen Foster is associate professor in the department of sociology and social anthropology at Dalhousie and the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada.
She said rural Nova Scotia is very much a ‘mixed bag’ of scenarios.
“There are communities that are thriving; communities that are kind of on their heels. There are communities that have more or less died.”
One of the common denominators of rural regions that are surviving, she said, is their proximity to urban centres.
“People don’t want to be completely isolated, they want access to services,” she said.
Still, there are people who want to live rurally — whether because of family ties to rural or the ‘off the grid’ dream of building a life that is not always about chasing big money.
Gwen Zwicker is a former consultant and researcher for the Rural and Small Town Project at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick.
In that province, she said, they’re seeing younger people and young entrepreneurs choosing to live off the grid and working on things like solar power, wind turbines, renewable energy.
Dr. Laurie Brinklow, co-ordinator of the Institute of Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, says there’s a ‘rural repopulation’ happening in that province as well, with young people coming back and taking over family farms, or getting involved in organic agriculture.
“I think it’s part of a global phenomenon,” Brinklow said. “We’re thinking about health, we’re thinking about what is good for us, and fueling our bodies with healthy food and taking on less stress in our lives.”
However, living rural is not all romance. There is the reality of aging populations, the decline of traditional industries, higher living costs and fewer services like Internet and public transportation.
And making a living in rural Atlantic Canada means finding opportunities where you can.
“Here, same as in the other Atlantic provinces, you have to be able to do a number of things to be able to make a living,” Brinklow said of P.E.I. “You become a jack-of-alltrades just out of necessity. You cobble together jobs just to be able to stay. It’s that passion to be able to stay that is driving it.”
Self-reliance is also part of the mindset of those who choose rural over urban, especially when it comes to food.
Foster noted, “A lot of the stuff considered to be progress in previous generations was leading us away from being self-reliant and having communities that can support themselves and that aren’t so totally dependent on a vast global network.”
Still, there’s only so far food self-reliance will take you. Rural communities still need new money coming in to provide jobs and a reason to stay.
In P.E.I., said Brinklow, work on renewable energy and increasing tourism will help that province move in the right direction.
She also cited the aerospace industry, research and the technology sector, as potential for the future. And the fact that P.E.I. is a smaller province, by size and population, can be a benefit, she added.
“We can turn on a dime if we need to,” she said. “We don’t have the big bureaucracy that takes three years to turn things around, you can actually make change much more quickly because on the scale of the place and the connections that we have, it’s one of the advantages I think we have. Our size, our scale.”
Dr. Rob Greenwood, executive director of the Harris Centre at Memorial University, said the factors challenging rural Newfoundland and Labrador are similar to those in other Atlantic provinces — ageing and declining population in more rural areas.
Greenwood said the province’s strength is in export of its natural resources and that’s where efforts should be focused.
According to data from the province’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the export value of seafood in 2017 was $1.3 billion — the third year in a row that fish exports exceeded $1 billion.
Resource-based industries like the fishery, forestry and mining, are the underlying economic drivers for rural areas.
“The question is really; do you have exports in your economy that will produce well-paying jobs?” he said. “There are people willing, and some who prefer, to live in rural communities but you can’t do it unless you make money.”
While the province will continue to rely on the traditional industries for new money, he added, those industries cannot continue along traditional lines.
Education will be an integral part of that, says Greenwood.
Using the fishery as an example, he said the future of that industry lies in “high productivity, using state-of-the-art technology ... as much as possible year-round, fewer communities and fewer people but self-sustainable and still long-term in my opinion.”
Meanwhile, in Nova Scotia, Dr. Foster suggests niche industries will be part of the equation for rural.
“We can decide to double down on exports and industrial everything and then just pray for tourism on the side or we can really start to think more about the liberation of smaller, locally-owned enterprises, everything from products and services to agriculture and energy,” she said.