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My Reflections on the Conference

The build-up to the Georgetown Conference conveyed a sense of its own importance.   That fact tweaked my cynicism leading up to the event:  no, this would not be the ‘start’ of standing up for rural (see, for instance, RCCN and the its Rural Policy Forums over the years and the work of our Foundation).  However, a conference can be a catalyst for renewed momentum and a great networking occasion, so I signed on.  Hey, what if this was to be our Woodstock?The Conference was a healthy blend of passionate advocates for community.  Included in the mix were some scholars, prominent large business owners, a few academics and government people, some media moguls, and, mainly, community builders from the municipal, small business, and community sectors.  The proportions differed from events backed by government (this was predominantly privately funded).  The diversity made for excellent interstitial conversations: a fortunate fact given that the rest of the conference lacked planning for small group discussion.

There was a zealous tone and message in many presentations.  The theme of the conference was Redefining Rural – thank goodness that none of the individual sessions actually drudged through those swamps (although I missed the final day, so who knows?).  My personal stance is that ‘community’ is a more important and persuasive entry point to viable rurality than is the delineation of rural vs. urban.  Rural is far from heterogeneous.  I don’t think that a romantic notion of rural nor a resistance movement to conserve that construct will result in the outcomes we want.  There were several presenters who suggested that our starting point should be those (love the life, fight the evil-doers).  Others really modelled the combination of passion and action, of constant re-creation to build resilience, of being for something rather than just against something else, that seems more likely to succeed.  Pam Mood, Mayor of Yarmouth, is in this camp.  Here “All Hands On Deck” action mobilization is inspiring.  More youth integrated in to the agenda would have been helpful; but Pam proves that youthfulness comes in all ages.

Zita Cobb of Fogo Island, Nfld., made a very compelling presentation about her work to rally Fogo islanders around place-based and sensitive enterprise.  She made the point that two factors are necessary for survival and thriving (surthrival): specificity of place, and productivity.  I hope her amazing vision and investment have lasting effect on Fogo; but the venture is hardly replicable in many other places since it involves a $45 million input from her that seems far from market-driven.

Ahh, Don Mills.  Don presented his polemic to the unsuspecting crowd in an onslaught of slides and colour commentary.  Many of the data sets could have been used to present the opposite conclusion in a narrative that wasn’t trying to establish urban as the answer to all that ails rural.  An example, Don asked respondents in his CRA quarterly poll about how far they would travel for certain services (such as healthcare, shopping, etc.).  The responses showed that rural people expect to travel longer distances and are willing to do so.  Don’s conclusion?  We don’t need as many rural services as we have now.  Another one: we have some serious attitude issues in Atlantic Canada.  Don’s evidence?  People are resistant to changes to EI that essentially do not recognize the legitimacy of traditional family and seasonal work and the choice of living/working in non-urban communities.  I know that Don has a good heart: it’s his use of data that is vexing.  And good on him for asserting an evidenced-related argument for his views.

A unique and beneficial feature of this event was the bringing together of passionate leaders from each of the Atlantic provinces.  Our issues and opportunities are so similar.  Having newspapers as a major sponsor was also important, since these same agents are so frequently the purveyors of city solutions and rural stereo-types.

Finally, it is important for those who did not attend (either turned away, not able to afford, or unavailable at the time) not think that somehow they cannot be part of future discussions and actions for our community causes with or without the Georgetown branding.  There was a slight whiff of elitism around this event (the lobster and golf resort contributed) …but the organizers did a really good job of grounding things in maritime folksiness.  I’m grateful to them.

The request for feedback below also asks for new action pledges.  I think that spread and scaling up of the innovation and leadership work that our foundation is pursuing is well aligned with the spirit of Georgetown.  I believe too, that the continued work of the Rural and Coastal Communities Network (eg. goodNS.ca and on community sustainability) is crucial.  Finally, the Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy that is consuming most of my time these days shares the vision of Georgetown, with special emphasis on the economic engines needed to build our places.