A well-timed Editorial in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, entitled “Rural Renaissance: Unlocking Potential “(October 19, 2013) called upon Maritimers to embrace the “re-imagining of public services” and identified the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative proposal to create “a new model of community school” that delivers “education efficiently on a human scale” and serves as “a focus for community development.” This Nova Scotia grassroots proposal, the paper noted, was just one of many innovative ideas given new life by a remarkable gathering known simply as “The Georgetown Conference.”
From October 3 to 5, some 275 community leaders and activists (including me) gathered in rural Prince Edward Island for the much-anticipated Georgetown Conference 2013 with stimulating speeches and workshops organized around the theme “Rural Redefined.” Co-chaired by former UPEI President Wade MacLauchlan, Oxford businessman John Bragg, Caisse Populaire Acadien boss Gilles Lepage, and Newfoundland Rising Tide Theatre founder Donna Butt, it was aimed at “harnessing the spirit that exists in rural communities” and at recognizing and further stimulating “innovative efforts.”
Bringing together community leaders like Acadia University President Ray Ivany, Yarmouth Mayor Pamela Mood, and prominent CRA pollster Don Mills with passionate rural activists such as Leif Helmer of Petite Riviere, NS, Dr. Michael Fox of Sackville, NB, and Dayle Eschelby of Lockport, NS was long overdue and worthwhile in, and of, itself. New bridges have already been built in defense of the vanishing settlements in the countryside.
Sharing our views provided 275 more “points of light,” but will it – can it—accomplish any more than that? Some of us have more robust aspirations – to initiate the significant change required to arrest the rural decline and set the Maritimes on the road to rural regeneration.
The Georgetown Conference 2013 initiative may help to dispel popular myths that rural Maritime life is bucolic, backward and a ‘deadweight’ in the modern global economy. Claims that Nova Scotia’s economic stagnation is caused by a “failure to urbanize” have likely been put to rest. The Nova Scotia Commission on Our New Economy, headed by Ivany and now on election hiatus, has probably acquired some fresh momentum.
Whether the Conference can bridge the great divide apparent in Atlantic Canada’s emerging economic vision for the future is far more problematic. Judging from the recent 4Front Atlantic Conference, held May 30, 2013 in Halifax, the 250 top business leaders and rising urban entrepreneurs may be proceeding with a different regional economic development agenda.
The 4Front Atlantic movement has proposed an Economic Positioning Strategy (GPS) for the region’s immediate as well as the long-term future. Coming up with that plan was an impressive show of business solidarity, but where does the three-year odyssey leave rural communities? The five “stretch goals” of 4Front Atlantic for the next five years tended to focus , much like that of the former Darrell Dexter Government, on expanding trade, promoting wealth creation and providing better jobs. Securing young, talented workers and pushing-up immigration levels were also touted as a kind of miracle cure for what ails our provincial economies.
4Front Atlantic’s keynote speaker, Dominic Barton, Managing Director of McKinsey & Company, is actually a well-known promoter of global trade and economic growth driven by urbanization. Cities, not rural and small town communities, according to Barton, are the vital cogs in a world where 440 cities produce 60% of the world’s GDP. He also predicts urbanizing trends will swell urban, middle class markets by more than 1 billion people by 2030. Two of our leading sectors, health care and education, continue to lag, in Barton’s words, as “the most techonologically-retarded” industries. Rising commodity prices will also pose challenges for the 1.2 million new urban dwellers a week seeking “a reasonable quality of life.”
Promoting Maritime ‘hub cities’ and ‘townsizing’ rural communities only advances urbanization. It also runs counter to the fundamental goals and aspirations of the rural community leaders and activists who gathered in Georgetown, PEI. Some 45 per cent of Nova Scotians are rural dwellers living in places of 5,000 people or less and the pattern is similar in the other provinces. Promoting rural sustainability is what drives them and they are not about to be swayed by visions of jobs ‘trickling down’ from mega projects. Innovation in today’s world is, more and more, being driven by small idea incubators and start-ups located outside cities and increasingly scattered throughout the countryside. This is evidenced by regular reports of the remarkable success of a host of Nova Scotia tech start-up companies.
What lessons are we gradually learning? Traditional business operations are proving to be surprisingly slow footed in the fast changing, globally-networked economy. Yet, without sustainable, thriving rural communities, the long–term well-being and food security of cities and towns is imperiled in the decades ahead.
Now is not the time to give up on rural regeneration. Moving schools to the centre of community renewal and development could well be the starting point. It is a critical piece of the agenda embracing support for innovative local enterprises, saving our farms, building, modelling sustainable living practices, and establishing networked communities. Building and preserving smaller schools is gradually being recognized as an essential building block for a revitalization in this corner of rural and small town Canada.
What’s driving the Georgetown Movement of rural revitalization? Does Rural Regeneration actually figure in the Economic Growth and Global Trade visions of today’s business leaders? Will schools and children find a place on the go forward economic development agenda?