Rural communities need local power: Lepage
By Tammy Scott-Wallace
Georgetown, P.E.I. – A prominent New Brunswick Acadian says until government puts power back into the hands of people at the grassroots, rural communities will not redefine success.
Gilles Lepage is the co-chairman of the Georgetown Conference being held now until Saturday in the small eastern Prince Edward Island town. He was part of the conference’s opening keynote addresses on Thursday, attended by about 300 delegates and community leaders from across Atlantic Canada focused on turning the tide on declining opportunities in rural communities.
Lepage is the former chief executive officer for the Mouvement des caisses populaire in New Brunswick who was named by Macleans Magazine in 2003 as one of the 10 Canadians “Who Make A Difference”, and was part of the conference opening aimed at pressing the reset button on rural communities in Atlantic Canada.
He said provincial governments need to show leadership, and specifically in his province, the traditional structure in unincorporated communities needs to evolve in order for prosperity to happen.
In many areas of the province regions have been eying the option of forming a Rural Community, but for the most part citizens are opposing them. The province has promised not to push the envelope. That has to change, Lepage said.
Lepage said until Rural Communities become a reality, allowing like areas to share services and support one another, communities will be at a standstill throughout the province.
“We must create prosperity for our citizens,” he said. And the only way to do that, he believes, is to put decisions in the hands of the people.
“In our unincorporated communities, there is a total absence of leadership, there are no plans, there is not a number to call,” Lepage said. “If we want to prepare for the future we have to be mature enough see this has to change.”
Simply, Lepage said, the late premier Louis J. Robichaud created a better model for New Brunswick with improvements to education and the importance of bilingualism, but in terms of local governance, he said the landscape did not change.
There has to be an overhaul, and for that to happen, Lepage says, the provincial government needs to lead.
“We are all making the same mistake, the Sussex area is no different than Tracadie or any other rural community,” Lepage said. “People who live in these communities need people elected to represent them in order to make things happen. It’s as simple as that.
“And for that to happen it takes a government with courage. They lack courage,” he added. “They know the government who undertakes this will lose their next election, and in our province we are already seeing one-term governments. No one will take the risk, but it’s the only way.”
And if or when the question is asked on whether Rural Communities, that have elected mayors like towns, cities and villages, should be created, Lepage believes the province needs to turn to a broader electronic vote.
“Take those people from…(all the rural) communities around who are out in Ontario working or in Fort McMurray and let them vote – there might be a different outcome,” he said. ‘These young people want to be home, but there have to be more opportunities for them to come home.”
Named Rural Redefined, the Georgetown Conference has attracted people from across the four provinces, all gathered with the common purpose of networking as a region to find solutions to shrinking rural identities. The event has been 20 months in the making, the brainchild of Newspapers Atlantic that represents 70 community papers with a combined circulation of 700,000 people, including Brunswick News weekly publications.
“I think there are ties that bind us in this part of the country,” said Ray Ivany, president of Acadia University in Nova Scotia, moderator of Thursday afternoon’s opening panel discussion featuring Lepage. Other speakers included Zeta Cobb, president of the Shorefast Foundation, and Donna Butt who founded Rising Tide Theatre. Both women have created successful businesses in rural Newfoundland and Labrador.
Tammy Scott-Wallace is a writer for Brunswick News Inc. She is reporting from the Georgetown Conference for Newspapers Atlantic.