“How we adapt to rural changes will be critical, says MNL president”

By Terry Roberts

The Compass


GEORGETOWN, P.E.I. — There’s a certain buzz being felt around this small town on the eastern edge of Prince Edward Island as some 250 “doers and producers” put their heads together to share ideas about ways to reignite rural Atlantic Canada.

It’s all part of a unique undertaking called the Georgetown Conference — Rural Redefined, which is being spearheaded by Newspapers Atlantic, which represents some 70 community newspapers in the Atlantic region.

The three-day conference began on Thursday, Oct. 3 with a spirited and weighty discussion led by two passionate and innovative Newfoundland women — philanthropist Zita Cobb of Fogo Island and Donna Butt, artistic director with Rising Tide Theatre in Trinity — and Gilles Lepage, chairman of the New Brunswick Investment Management Corp.

The opening session kicked off what’s expected to be a lively and necessary exchange of ideas and observations, all focused on a worrying trend — the hallowing out of rural communities as opportunities in traditional industries such as the fishery and forestry vanish, and younger people join a growing exodus towards urban areas.

The conference has attracted a diverse collection of people, all seeking answers to the question of how to slow this trend, or at least manage what is sure to be a painful and difficult evolution in the coming years.

The conference has a distinct Newfoundland and Labrador flavor, with some two dozen delegates from Canada’s most easterly province in attendance. They include Churence Rogers, president of Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador and mayor of the amalgamated rural town of Centreville-Wareham-Trinity, a town of roughly 1,200 located on the province’s northeast coast.

Rogers heads an umbrella organization mandated to represent the interests of some 276 cities and towns province, serving nearly 90 per cent of the province’s 500,000-plus population.

Rogers has been an outspoken advocate for the plight of rural Newfoundland Labrador, which has endured plenty of hardship and challenges through the centuries, but especially so since the collapse of the cod resource in the early 1990s, which had been the lifeblood of the province for many generations.

The cod has largely been replaced by other fish species — namely crab and shrimp — as the mainstay in the Newfoundland fishing industry, but employment opportunities have shrunk dramatically, the workforce is aging, and a new generation is turning away from this traditional industry.

This has prompted the asking of some tough questions about whether most rural communities can be saved, and whether it’s necessary to even try.

But it’s obvious by the early tone set in Georgetown that those with a stake in the future of rural areas are not willing to sit idle and watch their cultures, traditions and communities fade into history.

It was a message expressed forcefully and passionately by people like Cobb and Butt, and welcomed by people like Churence Rogers.

He described the work being done by people like Cobb and Butt as “overwhelming,” and feels that a gathering like Georgetown is long overdue and perhaps the catalyst to a renewed and co-operative effort to map out a strategy for the redefining of rural Atlantic Canada.

“It’s refreshing and there’s some real value to what’s being talked about here,” Rogers said of the Day 1 discussions at Georgetown.

He was especially moved by suggestions that young people have to be encouraged to invest in rural communities, and he believes there are opportunities in areas such as housing for seniors.

In the case of Centreville-Wareham-Trinity, he said the municipality is in discussions for a joint venture with a couple of young entrepreneurs in the creation of independent living units for older citizens.

There has been tremendous change in rural Canada over the past decade, and people like Churence Rogers have no allusions that major changes are yet to come. He said the real question is how do people adapt and manage those changes.

“That’s the challenge for us as muncipal leaders,” he said.

— Terry Roberts is editor of The Compass newspaper in Carbonear, NL, and is one of a team of community journalists covering  the Georgetown Conference for Newspapers Atlantic.