THRIV­ING OR JUST SUR­VIV­ING? WHAT’S AT PLAY IN AT­LANTIC CANADA’S RU­RAL OUT­POSTS?

Truro Daily News - - COLCHESTER COUNTY -

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.

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