Monday, 12 November 2012


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.