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The future of rural Atlantic Canada hinges on many factors, but a key ingredient for overcoming the region’s challenges may rest with attitude — specifically an outlook that the glass remains half-full.
In the four Atlantic provinces, you can find people who are fighting back against that infamous idea espoused by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper that Atlantic Canadians have a “culture of defeat.”
Instead, they are banding together, collaborating, building on local assets, innovating and drafting new stories for their communities.
“Ideas from the periphery need allies from the centre. No matter how good their ideas, community groups require the support of large organizations that enjoy the perceived legitimacy of government in order to see their ideas scale.”
— The McConnel Foundation.
It comes down to attitude
On a chilly weekend in early May, a couple dozen people from the four Atlantic provinces gathered around a campfire at Windhorse Farm, a rural retreat in New Germany, on Nova Scotia’s South Shore.
Around warmth of the crackling fire, the conversation was lively.
That was expected from the gathering of people passionate about the need for change in rural Atlantic Canada.
From this meeting of the minds, #WeavEast was born.
Annika Voltan, who is working on a PhD in social enterprise, was part of that birth.
She says the idea behind WeavEast is to share knowledge and ideas, build links and encourage collaboration between community leaders and groups.
“We established a group of nine fellows from across the Atlantic provinces to connect with communities — not just rural but definitely with more of a focus on rural — and have more in-depth conversations with people about what is happening and looking at where there are areas we might be able to collaborate.”
“It’s possible to invest public money in small, nimble, niche-focused businesses like the hundreds already operating in rural communities. Some of these businesses will be seasonal because we live in a society with seasons. It is possible to aim for slow and steady growth (or even stasis) instead of chasing lucrative, but temporary, smokestacks.”
— Blog post by Dr. Karen Foster, Associate Professor of Sociology, Dalhousie University
Positivity will be a key ingredient, Voltan stresses.
“There is often this sense of hopelessness around the economy and a better future,” she says, and the too-familiar label of “have not” has not helped.
Thankfully, Voltan continues, that attitude is changing as people start to focus on community strengths.
She is executive director of Inspiring Communities.
The Nova Scotia-based non-profit’s goal is to kick-start community dialogue to help solve local issues. Inspiring Communities is particularly focused on the Sydney Mines area of Cape Breton and the Digby region. In both places, local citizens are working on answers to challenges related to addictions and drug abuse, poverty and isolation.
“In those communities we are looking at how to rebuild trust between government and communities,” Voltan said.
“From our perspective it’s important to... have the work be community-led and focus on the solution locally rather than a one-size-fits-all answer to community development.”
Meetings involve community organizations and businesses, as well as government representatives.
“The big premise behind our work is that we can do better together.”
Changing mindsets is also part of it.
“One of the things that seems to be resonating with people is just looking at the positive, taking the mindset of the glass is half-full.
“When a whole community starts to think that way, then it starts to build community confidence and more of a willingness to take some risks, to try new things, or ask for different things.”
Jim Sentance agrees attitude is an important ingredient.
“As long as Atlantic Provinces maintain uncompetitive corporate tax rates and overall tax burdens that are heavier than in other provinces, the outflow of youth seeking better economic opportunity elsewhere should be of no surprise.”
— 2018 report “Dearth of Opportunity; Tax Burden and Youth Out-Migration in Atlantic Canada” by Matthew Lau and Marco Navarro-Génie for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies
He’s an associate professor in the University of Prince Edward Island’s economics department.
“It is a bit of a problem, certainly if you’re an entrepreneur and considering doing something in a rural area and people are dwelling on the fact the area is in decline.”
It’s also time to reconsider the usual approach of government cutbacks and laser focus on deficits, says Sentence.
Over the last decade, he says, there has been a lot of effort by some governments — particularly Nova Scotia and New Brunswick — on aggressive cutbacks to balance budgets.
That may not always be the right answer, he suggests.
“Prince Edward Island did less of that. We did have a bit of financial restraint, but you didn’t see aggressive cutbacks in a lot of areas. And we ran deficits for quite a while — during the (Premier) Ghiz years — and there were some people really getting on government’s case about that.
“In doing that I think they were able to maintain a situation where cutbacks were not the primary story. And I think governments in a lot of places are starting to be a lot more accepting of this.”
It’s a shift from the 1990s when deficits were considered “horrible things,” he says.
“But, in places like Nova Scotia, what government has done to try to balance its budget has created a bit more negative, pessimistic message than what P.E.I. did in taking a slower, easier approach to moving towards a balance budget,” he says.
“We’ve probably moved toward a balanced budget in P.E.I. more by modest restraint and growth of the population and the economy rather than big cutbacks in rural areas.”
Voltan added there are tough problems in rural communities and the solutions will require work, but the usual “spray and pray” approach — bureaucratic solutions aimed to fit all — has not worked.
The answers, she suggests, will come from working “with” community as opposed to working “on behalf of” it.
And those solutions will come from a desire to work differently and think positively, she says.
“It’s not going to happen overnight and that’s going to be the real test; changing culture and mindsets is not short-term work.”
This year, the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) set new targets for voice services and broadband Internet, on fixed and mobile networks, for rural and remote areas. The goal includes: 50 Mbps download/10 Mbps upload speeds for fixed broadband; unlimited data options; and making mobile wireless available along major Canadian roads.
Challenge: Poor or no connection to the world
Solution: Better internet services could draw people and business to rural areas
Don Fletcher loves rural life.
So much so, he returned to his hometown after retiring from a military career that took him far and wide — throughout Canada and Europe — for more than two decades.
“It’s just a nice place to live; quiet, nice,” he says of New Salem, N.S.: population 50.
Fletcher is happy to live in a place where you don’t have to worry much about keeping your doors locked.
And he doesn't mind being about 75 kilometres from the nearest major centre, Amherst.
Fletcher, a town councillor, does worry about the future of his small town, though.
“There’s just 10 people or so here under the age of 30 and I think there’s only one child that gets on the school bus here.”
The all-grade school in nearby Advocate Harbour has just 50 children.
He’d love to see younger people move in.
And he’s certain the ability to connect to the outside world through better internet service would help.
“As a municipal councillor, I would put that near the top of priorities,” he said. “For economic development, we need people to come to rural areas, but they won’t come without a good internet service.”
The owners of the Wild Caraway Restaurant and Café in Advocate Harbour emphatically agree.
Sarah Griebel and Andrew Aitken are in their mid-30s: just the age demographic rural towns would welcome.
Griebal is from Alberta, but has family connections in Cumberland County, and Aitken immigrated from Australia.
They moved here over a decade ago, bought a home and opened the restaurant, café and guest rooms.
Federal budget 2019 set a national target to have 95 per cent of Canadian homes and businesses be able to access internet speeds of at least 50/10 Mbps by 2026 and 100 per cent by 2030, no matter where they are located in the country.
Rural life suits them.
“I love being able to walk on the beach, that there’s no noise or light pollution and living in a town where everyone knows your name,” says Aitken.
The seasonal business is also doing well. It ranks high on ratings on the popular website TripAdvisor.
The one thing that makes it exceptionally challenging to run a business in the rural community is lack of internet and poor cell phone service.
“The internet is less than average, and it’s frustrating,” says Griebel.
If more than a handful of diners begin tapping into her restaurant’s Wi-Fi system, she continues, the connection speed slows down for everyone. That impacts the ability of the business to process payments and guest reservations.
Better internet and mobile phone service could also mean the difference between travellers visiting a place or not and how long they stay, she says.
“They like to stay connected, to touch base with home to let family know they’ve arrived safely for instance. And they like to know they can communicate via cellphone in any sort of emergency.”
Aitken doesn’t expect the same level of high-speed as a major city, but he wants and needs affordable and reliable internet.
“Living in a rural area, I don’t mind if the power goes off and I don’t mind driving an hour to see a doctor. But internet is just one of those things that, as a business owner, it’s becoming more difficult to deal with.”
Improving internet service in rural areas requires money and collaboration.
In its 2019 budget, the federal government earmarked $1.7 billion to improve internet, with a national goal to deliver high-speed service to every Canadian home and business by 2030.
How that funding will be delivered as well as when and where is unknown.
Meanwhile, local governments — municipal and provincial — are exploring solutions.
In New Salem, Fletcher says the lack of decent internet service is frequently discussed at council meetings.
He’s not sure what the solution is, but he says the issue will not go away until one is found.
“We’re working with the Municipality of Colchester — our economic development people working with their economic development people — to see if there’s something we can do jointly, working with the province and the feds.”
That all-important connection to the world would go a long way, Fletcher says, towards attracting businesses and people to rural areas.
Currently, prices for broadband subscription services tend to be higher in the Atlantic provinces than in other provinces. P.E.I. has one of the highest price averages, but scores a B and ranks third among provinces on connectivity.
Most provinces are middling to poor performers on connectivity relative to international peers. Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick - with 73 to 75 per cent of households having broadband subscriptions - ranked C on the scorecard. Nova Scotia, with 70 per cent broadband coverage, ranked a D grade.
— Source: Conference Board of Canada, 2015 report on connectivity
Challenge: Lack of people in rural communities
Solution: Develop a focused plan to welcome new citizens
Jack Kyte says immigration is paying off for businesses in Pictou County.
In the mostly-rural region of Nova Scotia, new residents are filling the gaps in fast food, construction labour and the medical field.
“(Businesses are) getting excellent employees who are very dedicated and loyal . . . and have a high energy,” says the executive director of the Pictou County Chamber of Commerce.
As rural regions struggle to maintain a stable population and workforce, newcomers are part of the solution.
The key is to work to ensure the immigrants know Pictou Country is an option, and to make them feel welcome.
In 2017, the Pictou County and Antigonish chambers of commerce partnered with the regional library to create newcomer welcome centres. There, immigrants can connect with people and find resources.
Thanks to Syrian refugee programs, Pictou County now has a growing Arabic-speaking population. A mosque has been established for those who practice Islam.
Kailee Brennan was recently hired as a newcomer resettlement co-ordinator by Pictou County Safe Harbour , one of the groups established to welcome refugees.
Her job is to help newcomers become part of the community.
In the past, she said, Pictou County hasn’t been diverse, but that’s changing.
She said she believes there’s a lot more opportunity for interaction between people who have lived in the county all their lives and those who are coming in. When that happens, it’s a win, she says.
“It helps us be more well-rounded as a community.”
Food for thought
Solutions lie in finding opportunities that make sense
The economy and culture of rural Atlantic Canada is as diverse as the individual communities that dot the nation’s eastern edge.
The land and sea have always provided a mixture of opportunities and challenges, success and heartbreak, for those who aim to live there.
“There’s nothing romantic and simple about rural,” says Dr. Robert Greenwood of Memorial University’s Harris Centre. “If it ever was that way, it certainly isn’t anymore.”
Yet people do choose to live here, driven by ideas, a passion for the rural lifestyle and a commitment to stick it out through the toughest times.
The resources that drew early settlers here — fishing, farming, forestry and mining — are still part of the rural economy’s bedrock.
But, the reality is these industries have to turn to technology to be more competitive in the world of exports, says Greenwood, and that means fewer people employed on the processing end of the business.
Niche markets in the tourism industry are part of the solution; they have helped create regional destination clusters and seasonal business opportunities in out of the way places throughout the Atlantic provinces.
Professor Jim Sentance of the University of Prince Edward Island is especially intrigued by the recent trend towards craft breweries and distilleries.
As more of these operations crop up, he believes it could have a spill-over effect and the creation of new opportunities for others.
Brewing beer requires hops and barley, he pointed out, and the demand for these ingredients could help local farmers diversify.
The Atlantic Canadian academics, business leaders and community champions interviewed for this series, have offered up many opinions and ideas on how to maintain and sustain rural communities.
They’ve pointed to local niche markets as well as export markets, the importance of sharing ideas and advocating for essential services to help make communities viable.
Christie Jamieson offers another perspective as well, on the most essential ingredient of all — food.
She is the executive director of Food First N, a non-profit group with a goal to solve the problem of affordable and healthy food supplies within Newfoundland and Labrador.
The reality of rural areas is that the cost of shipping goods into those areas is high and has a direct impact on the cost of living.
The solution for residents may be as near as their own backyards.
Food First NL has teamed up with rural communities to develop gardens and livestock programs.
It helps, she said, that rural areas already have a strong tradition of hunting and gathering for food supplies, and that food is trending.
Jamieson notes businesses catering to tourists — like the Shorefast Foundation on Fogo Island — are trying to procure as much local food as they can.
As a result, some backyard gardeners are not only supplying their own needs, but also finding opportunities to market some of their home-grown produce.
Food First NL recently started talking to regional health care authorities about a farm-to-hospital bed approach to food procurement, an idea that could provide more opportunities within the agricultural community.
Jamieson’s take on rural life is from the perspective of food.
However, it is a perspective that also fits with the broader challenges and solutions for rural communities.
“I think very much about the challenges they face in terms of access (to affordable, healthy food),” she says.
“But I also think very immediately about the strengths and power of rural.
“I think it’s about harnessing that power of rural and identifying opportunities that make sense.”