I spent some time yesterday in a same rural community in New Brunswick. I was chatting with a few key municipal representatives. We had wide-ranging discussions but the bottom line is that this community is like so many in New Brunswick – in decline in many ways. Their gas station just closed. Their school is declining to the point they expect one day for it to be closed. There has been no real residential housing growth since the 1950s.
When I casually mentioned what are they doing about this, the answer was – nothing. No resources. No time. They have been hung out to dry by the ‘province’.
And so I pondered this for a bit.
We pay doctors a premium to locate in rural New Brunswick but we pay our economic developers less – and in fact many of these communities don’t even have a person in charge of what you would call ‘economic development’. There are regional economic developmenta agencies and they play an important role in reigons but are not the substitute for on the ground economic development in these communities.
The biggest single government expense in many of these communities is EI. The don’t have the money to hire someone to do on the ground economic development but they spend, in many cases, millions on EI in those communities.
The other point that seems obvious to me is that the successful rural communities tend to have at least one large, anchor employer (McCain’s, UPN Kymmene, etc.) around which the small business sector grows.
Yet the strategy to replace these large employers when they leave is more ‘tourism’ or ‘we need to grow small businesses’ or, in a growing number of voices, let the community die.
Why can’t we find new generational, anchor employers for these communities? We can spend $700 million per year on EI but we can’t spend a few bucks to find a way to attract new employers?
I know all the buzz now is about urbanization in Atlantic Canada. Our reliance on rural economies has ‘held us back’. I know. I know. We need to be more ‘like Toronto’. Critical mass. Integrated supply chains. Infrastructure.
Yet we have dozens of communities dying. Their way of life is threatened. And I think there is a better way.
It’s voting season, folks. Put that question to the snake oil salesmen.