There were two studies out recently both with basically the same findings but from two different perspectives. The Atlantic Provinces Economic Council study finds urbanization in Atlantic Canada – the six main cities are growing – something like 50,000 increase in population (I forget the timefram) while the overall population of the region is declining.
The Federal government also released its ‘rural region profiles’ recently which concluded that rural areas in Atlantic Canada are facing steep population decline.
Both of these studies and the commentary around them seem to suggest that rural decline is inevitable – the result of shifting economic activity, yadda, yadda, yadda. John Ibbitson is now the patron saint of regional development. Sheesh.
I put forward an alternative view. Forgive its simplicity but these days after 15 years of this stuff I have reverted to simplicity – at least to get the discussion going.
Take a place like Campbellton, New Brunswick. It was originally built around a certain set of industries. Now those industries are in decline. Fine. Why can’t Campbellton reinvent itself around a new set of industries? So forestry jobs are driving economic growth. Fine. What is? And why can’t Campbellton take advantage of that?
Some would say that economic development is based on certain geographic assets – forests, agricultural land, minerals, fish, etc. But something like 80% of economic development has nothing to do with ‘geography’ per se – there are many other factors that influence development such as cost environments, infrastructure, access, education/workforce, etc. etc. etc.
So, why can’t Campbellton reinvent itself as a hub for xxx activity? Plug it in. E-learning, games/animation, customer service/technical support. Heck, how about some good ol’ value added wood manufacturing?
Well, the typical response I get is that it’s not the government’s role to ‘engineer’ community economic development.
We are expected to provide health care, education, roads, municipal services, welfare, EI and on and on – billions worth in New Brunswick every year.
What logical ground does one stand on when they take the position that governments are supposed to spend billions on a massive social system but do relatively little to generate the funding required for that social spending?
What if this approach was taken at a national level? What if the federal government decided to spend what would be the equivalent of something like $100 billion more each year than it takes in in taxes?
Isn’t that what we do in New Brunswick?
Back to Campbellton. We’re losing our old industries. Fine. Let’s go out and find some new ones.
I don’t buy this inevitability of urbanization in New Brunswick. I hope the urban areas grow and prosper but I stubbornly believe there is a place for small town and rural living in the 21st century.