Monday, 12 November 2012

WHAT HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO FORT McMURRAY?

Small island economies are naturally vulnerable.   Natural barriers, including remoteness and marine geography, implicitly, exacerbate the challenge of easy access. 

Dependence on resources like fishing, trees and tourism, historically have a seasonal character, which together with fluctuating markets and other factors, keep disposable incomes low. 
The attraction of stable, high paying jobs whether in Fort McMurray or elsewhere is impossible to ignore.

Rural communities are not just in decline, they are being gutted.  Rural NL is under threat, less now from unemployment than from labour mobility and competition for skills, from elsewhere.
Mega projects have an irresistible allure, the modest janitor can now lay claim to a six figure income out West. Fishing boats, at home, can’t attract share men.  Two paper mills have shuttered, a third hangs on, barely. 

Fish processing, the almost singular source of employment for graying fisher people, too old to do the bi-weekly flight to Fort McMurray, find China a worthy if unequal competitor. If these fisher people feel forgotten, who could blame them?  

Perhaps they would view public discussion, of the threat they are under, as just ‘more talk’.  Still, someone should at least ask, not just who, but what infrastructure, services and other support systems will survive when the mega projects out West and those at home, are done?

A culture in which civic duty and participatory democracy is fostered is a nice concept, but it needs to be asked: do highly mobile busy people, who are making good money, ever really feel disenfranchised? 
Opportunities for public engagement in public policy issues are thought to be a requirement in modern life.  Activists and policy wonks link such open dialogue with a healthy and well-functioning liberal democracy.

But, when life is good and prosperity abounds, who is taking stock?
Was it ever any different in NL?  Actually, yes.

In the 1970s and 80s, the economy was not nearly as rosy as it is now, but rural sustainability, the fishery, impending oil developments and many other issues preoccupied public discourse.
Memorial University set up the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) to perform academic research; rural issues enjoyed special focus.  Governments talked openly about development and rural ‘revitalization’.  They held Royal Commissions. 

Everyone knew that the challenges were daunting.  Still politicians, rural developments associations and others engaged in myriad public policy discussions and tried to figure out where, as a society, we were heading. 
In those days, there was a certain vibrancy to the debates; fresh out of the confining Smallwood years, people wanted to contribute, needed to contribute; many felt part of a mission to keep the vibrancy alive, that if it were discussed long enough and often enough we could figure out a solution to grow our economy, keep rural NL vibrant and preserve our culture.

What happened?
Over the past twenty years rural communities essentially evaporated with barely a whimper. Of course, no rural development program could compensate for the effects of the Cod Moratorium. No such program could compete either, with the high wages of Fort McMurray.

We don’t really talk much about rural NL anymore, certainly not with the same reverence or concern we used to.  Given its importance though, historically, socially, culturally, some might suggest that we need to deal with rural issues or abandon that part of our society altogether, that we should stop giving those who remain the false hope that policy makers, or anyone else really care. 
If, the latter, then consciously, not passively or by quiet attrition, we should announce to the remaining few that cling to our bays, that it’s over. For them and for the Newfoundland and Labrador we have always known. 

In so doing, let’s be honest with ourselves and at least enquire whether it is mobility, modernity or just our new found wealth that has encouraged passive acquiescence to the new rural paradigm.
A few weeks ago, I read a Telegram editorial written by a noted rural development activist in the 80’s.  At that time, he was paid deference for his knowledge as a rural specialist. Now, evidently, he counsels ‘full steam ahead’ on Muskrat Falls, without as much as a single word on how the remnants of rural areas might be impacted by its high cost or how cost overruns might jeopardize the funding arrangements and other supports that small towns crave.         

The fishing industry reports that 30,000 pounds of yellow tail flounder, or at least 70% of it, is destined for China’s processing facilities.  Foreign draggers will be employed to harvest the quota. Negotiations are taking place over 30% of the catch and 110 jobs.  An aging workforce in Fortune, unable to balance the ‘bigger picture’, is desperate for an answer. They don’t care that they represent a temporary but convenient ‘offset’ for a policy which, if implemented, is a harbinger of continued rural decline.
The public seems inured to the fact that the once significant public company, “Fishery Products International”, whose relative transparency and access to public markets for funding, represented a hopeful signpost in an industry that historically has been void of vision and leadership.  The public accepts, too, it seems, a diminished “Ocean Choice International”, that is bereft of even the ability to harvest the small quota on offer. Not that the public has a choice.

The Eastern School District wants to close another five schools. Catalina, Swift Current, Heart’s Delight, Whitbourne and Colliers are all on the chopping block.  Another round of school closings! One more round, this year.  Will there be another one next year, too? In the interest of education, says the School Board, as it offers up compromise on Swift Current and Colliers. 
Shouldn’t ‘all of us’ be talking about this? What about the kids, the towns, the ‘whole community’, not the buildings, but the ‘sense of small town’, the weave of relationships, the generations?
Doesn’t culture comprise all of them and more? Isn’t rural Newfoundland and Labrador who we are, or have we just forgotten that essential fact in the rush to prosperity?

Funny thing is, we can close more schools, but government can’t stop hiring more bureaucrats. It does so, even in the absence of a growing population. We can afford them, but we can’t choose to let kids grow up on a playground instead of on a school bus.
Indeed, how can School Boards, no matter how well intended, make such decisions in isolation from any responsibility for the broader social and economic picture?  The School Board’s quest for ‘efficiencies’ is akin to inviting Dracula to a mortals party. They don’t regard rural development strategies as their issue. Maybe, it’s an issue for another Board. Perhaps, not at all!

Can the value of keeping more rural communities intact fall, so quickly, out of our consciousness? The prospect that our roots were never really that deep, in the first place, is difficult to countenance.
Perhaps, higher earning power and the rarefied air we breathe on the way to Fort McMurray and, now, closer to home can cause, not just an immodest level of passive indifference but indeed, amnesia, too.

Likely, public policy discussions are no antidote for financial invincibility.

2 comments:

  1. We are an isolated island, but we have a migratory population. This has always been the case. People move and experience different cultures, different countries, and participate in many economies. The issue is that although our population is very migratory, the government of the province is insular in both their collective experience, and the way they see the world. Muskrat Falls is an excellent example of this where the government is proceeding with a project which will delivery some of the most expensive power in North America. They are blind to what is happening in the US with Shale Gas. But in addition to being insular they are also oblivious to our economic future. The oil will last for the next 20-30 years, but the current prosperity will dampen. The natural population decline will worsen, and there will be no growth as predicted by Nalcor. Yet the government is blind to this, and are proceeding with Muskrat at our peril. They have been negligent in explaining the risk of low growth to the people of Newfoundland. The last 10 years represents a decade of lost opportunity. We have had 10-15 years of poor governance, but is has been hidden by the oil driven prosperity. Running a 750 Million dollar deficit in the most vibrant economy we have ever had is testimant enough of the incompetence of the current administration. Historians will not be kind to Mr. Williams nor Ms. Dunderdale. Muskrat Falls will be their badge of shame.

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  2. During the past decade, we have been, not just poorly managed, but grossly mismanaged by these PC administrations. They came in with so much zeal, and the rightful indignation of "no more giveaways" was their rallying cry to the masses. All of us were sick of the political shenanigans of the past but I personally never saw the "magic" so many perceived in Mr. Williams. He fooled the electorate and his disciples are trying to do the same, but with less panache. He, with his independent wealth, did not need to kowtow to the "elite" of St. John's. However, when he became the fortunate recipient of all that oil money, he spent it like a drunken sailor and sacrificed our future for another political mandate.

    Now, his disciples are doing the same, with his unabashed support and encouragement. What is even more galling is that he has a vested interest in the Muskrat Falls project development going ahead, by becoming connected to Alderon. Conflict of interest? It certainly would appear to be that way!! However, most people still find it difficult to criticize any of his moves, despite other blunders, most notably the unwitting expropriation of the Grand Falls paper mill.

    It is the lack of vision and foresight by Williams and the current motley crew that has led to an even greater urban-rural divide. They may crow about their "investments" in infrastructure but there is no coherent vision or plan, except to throw out money and expect people to bow down to you. Folks, it is OUR money, so we don't need to feel like the poor cousins. I thought we had more pride than that!

    The ultimate result is that rural NL is now dependent largely on the Alberta oil patch, despite the wealth off our own shores. It can't get much more ironic than that!

    The only real concern for these PC's is their "big business" friends and that is a sure-fire way to ultimately destroy the remnants of a one-great resource. They build mega dams for the benefit of their friends and they concentrate the remaining fish resources into the hands of a few, all at the expense of rural areas.

    Then, by consolidating hospital boards and school boards( although some of that goes back to Clyde Wells' days as Premier), they distance themselves from the rural backwaters. It is so much easier to make a decision from afar, as we all know, but the lack of proximity to the community emboldens these visionaries, whether of the educational or medical variety. All of these methods of governance and service delivery come at the expense of rural areas, and will ultimately lead to the loss of any services, thereby further endangering their survival. That may not have been the intended outcome but it will be the final result!

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