“The discussion begins at the Georgetown”

By Terry Roberts

TC Media

Donna Butt-Zita Cobb

The discussion about ways to redefine rural Atlantic Canada during what many are calling a pivotal period in history got off to a compelling and exuberant start today in Prince Edward Island.

It was Day 1 of the Georgetown Conference, and the theatre room at the Kingston Playhouse in Georgetown — a town of roughly 700 residents in Kings County — was standing room only as this unique three-day event got underway.

Some 250-plus so-called “doers and producers” from all four Atlantic Canadian provinces have assembled, including two dozen delegates from Newfoundland and Labrador.

And it was two powerful and influential women from Canada’s most easterly province — philanthropist Zita Cobb from Fogo Island and Donna Butt, artistic director of Rising Tide Theatre in Trinity — who led the early discussion during a panel session Thursday afternoon.

The two shared their visions about the importance of maintaining a strong rural foothold in Atlantic Canada, and both are doing their utmost to contribute to that concept.

After three decades in the corporate world, Cobb returned to Fogo Island in 2005 to establish the Shorefast Foundation, which over a 10-year period is directing the investment of some $60 million into initiatives designed to preserve the culture of Fogo Island, and strengthen its economic base. Of this, some $45 million is coming from private donors, mostly from Cobb.

“What we’re trying to do is hang on to what we have, and create these economic engines and try and make it work,” Cobb explained.

The foundation’s initiatives, including an inn, artist studios and much more, have attracted worldwide attention and created much-needed employment on the island.

Meanwhile, Rising Tide Theatre has helped transform the tiny community of Trinity into a major tourist attraction, and now employs about 45 people.

Butt admitted it’s no substitute for the loss experienced following the closure of the cod fishery in the early 1990s, but she said it’s vital that people not give up on our rural communities.

She said a great country must have strong and viable rural areas.

“We can’t just sit by and watch the lights go out one by one,” she said. “If nobody lives in our communities, who will fish? Who will put food on their table? Who will build the tourism industry? Who will be the keepers of the culture and natural wonders and the incredible, breathtaking beauty? We need to use all our power to re-imagine a better place.”

To be sure, there are no easy answers to what many are describing as a crisis situation. Not every town can count on someone like Zita Cobb, whose wealth and vision and passion is literally changing the social and economic landscape of her hometown.

With very few exceptions, those in attendance at the conference believe in their communities, and are not prepared to sit idle.

Cobb said it’s people like this that will make the difference, and she encouraged those with rural roots, and those who have benefited from rural places, to “come to the table.”

She used the co-operative model on Fogo Island as an example of how rural areas can survive. The co-op was established after the last fish merchant pulled out in the late 1960s, and as a result, Fogo Island — though its population has shrunk from a high of 6,000 to roughly 2,400 — continues to have a deep attachment to the fishery.

If everything had been left in the hands of what she called “distant capitalists,” she’s wonders what would have happened to Fogo Island.

That single fish plant has since grown to four, she explained.

“If we did not have a fishery, I think I’d be the first to say we should leave,” Cobb said, “and the projects of the Shorefast Foundation would have no meaning.”

She stressed that maintaining rural areas will not happen without strong partnerships at every level, with everyone prepared to “be awake, alive and pushing and shoving to make anything happen.”

She believes strongly that local ownership, preferably community ownership, is important to the viability of rural communities.

“We also need access to great design and we have to build new connective tissue to get to markets,” she added.

She noted that “specificity” is what matters, and that “the world is being flattened … so that the landscapes and spirits of the places are being given away.”

She added: “We don’t have to sell whatever it is we produce to some monster organization that’s then going to repackage and resell it somewhere.”

She said the focus is too often on economic capital and not enough thought is put into the other essential forms of capital — human, social, cultural and natural.

“We usually kill all those in trying to maximize economic capital,” she said.

She cautioned that co-operatives are not always the answer, describing the model as an “organized way to fight with each other.” But if the local fish plant has to close, she noted, at least the decision will be made at the local level.

“When we lose the specificity of the place, we’ve lost the place. So we need to look inside each of our communities and ask what is special about this place, and that’s what we need to build on. I’ve never been to a community that doesn’t have anything,” she said.

Butt agreed, saying “We have to find new ways to create work. We have to re-imagine our communities.”

She suggested a movement be launched to bring the plight of rural areas to the forefront, much like like the fight for universal health care captured the Canadian imagination several generations ago.

“They have to know we were hear,” Butt said. “We’re in crisis, but let’s fight this battle, and let’s win this battle.”

— Terry Roberts is editor at The Compass newspaper in Carbonear, NL. He is reporting on the Georgetown Conference for Newspapers Atlantic.