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Rural Redefined: Georgetown Conference features great ideas exchange
by Frank Macdonald

In October, a conference will be held in Georgetown, Prince Edward Island, designed to shake off any sense of feeling forsaken in the rural regions of Atlantic Canada.

Billed as Rural Redefined, conference organizers plan to bring together 250 representatives from across the four Atlantic provinces to talk about the challenges being faced by rural towns,  villages and districts, and to challenge, too, what they perceive as the great myth of rural Atlantic Canada, “that she is a region whose best years are behind her. For those of us who live and work here the stereotype is nothing new: We are too old, too dependent on faltering traditional industries, too reliant on government, too parochial. Rubbish, we say.”

Wade MacLauchlan, former president of the University of Prince Edward Island and Order of Canada recipient, is one of four co-chairs for the conference. He explains that one of the conference’s purpose to help Atlantic Canadians create new networks, identify things that people can actually do. “A lot of it today is finding ways to pull together to get something done.” It’s been done before, MacLauchlan reminds people. “Most of what we have now in co-ops came out of utter poverty.”

Paul MacNeill, publisher of PEI’s Eastern Graphic, explained during a CBC radio interview on the conference that he saw it as “a great ideas exchange,” noting that there is a general frustration with the politics of rural priorities which tend to amount to not much more than a photo op.

There will be few ‘photo ops’ at Georgetown.

The Rural Redefined gathering will be free of politics and free of politicians. No members of parliament, provincial legislatures, bureaucrats or councillors will be asked to attend.  That decision did not come from an anti-political decision by organizers, says MacLauchlan, “but what comes out of the conference has to be perceived as independent, coming from people and communities doing real things.”

MacLauchlan, who is currently working on a book about the era of Premier Alex Campbell of PEI, reflects that there was a period between 1966-78 when the Campbell government made sincere efforts to help rural PEI develop, with policies such as housing projects, seeing the building or improvement of 12,000 homes during that time.

That interest, investment and energy has all but vanished from provincial governments and MacLauchlan and other organizers believe that the most valuable ideas for redefining rural Atlantic Canada will come from the people who live the challenge daily.

Georgetown itself, with a population of 675, the capital of Kings County, will be hard-pressed to accommodate a conference of 250, but was chosen for the very reason the conference is being held. Once thriving on a sawmill and boat building, it now faces the same challenges as so many other Atlantic towns and villages, unemployment, population loss and aging, but it is a village that reflects realities rarely addressed by political policies.

Organizers explain on the conference’s website that “Georgetown will be a conference about ideas and success, not failures of the past. We will attract business leaders, community leaders, small business owners, employees, artists and ordinary citizens from all walks of life. We will identify success stories and transfer that knowledge to our Atlantic shores. We will challenge the status quo and engage stakeholders with the sole purpose of revitalizing our rural communities.”

Backing the Georgetown undertaking is Newspapers Atlantic, one of the first sponsors to grasp the vision and offer to participate through advertising and to generate further interest through committing news space and reporters to keep the public informed, interested and wanting to discuss, either in their own communities or through participation in the conference, the issues, the challenges and the solutions to strengthening rural Atlantic Canada’s economic and cultural presence as a partner and not a poor cousin in the future development of the four provinces.

“The Georgetown Conference is a unique event of which Newspapers Atlantic is a proud major sponsor,” says the organization’s president, Inez Forbes. “Newspapers Atlantic has complete confidence that The Georgetown Conference, Rural Redefined will be a huge success and we take pride in our sponsorship.”

Along with spreading the word, each of the 70 newspapers in the organization will nominate one of the people who will be attending the conference, those nominations drawn from the newspapers’ knowledge of its region and readership.

Other people interested in being invited to attend the Georgetown gathering can visit: www.thegeorgetownconference.ca and download an application form.

The conference organizers will have tough decisions to make regarding whom to invite to the conference, and already interest and inquiries are growing. They want the conference to fairly reflect the rural regions of the four Atlantic provinces. With 70 delegates nominated by the local newspapers, the remaining number will be accepted to reflect their commitment to their communities, and for geographical balance.

Along with MacLauchlan, other co-chairs include John Bragg of Collingwood, Nova Scotia, Gilles LePage of Caraquet, New Brunswick and Donna Butt of Trinity, Newfoundland and Labrador.

Among the list of confirmed speakers and panellists are Ray Ivany, Mary Beth Doucette, and Sheila Jans, each of whom is steeped in rural economic development histories and successes. Zita Cobb, founder of the Shorefast Foundation, will deliver a keynote address. Her foundation is remaking Fogo Island off the Northeast coast of Newfoundland.

The Georgetown Conference will not be a ‘one off,’ explains MacLauchlan. It will be a beginning, and out of that beginning rural Atlantic Canadians can expect a manifesto outlining what participants have identified as necessary to the economic and cultural survival of our rural communities.

Georgetown, according to MacNeill and MacLauchlan, needs to be followed up with at least two or three more conferences in other rural locations every two or three years to keep the vision and momentum going.