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THERE’S SOMETHING HAPPENING HERE

Editor’s note: In October, Prince Edward Island will host The Georgetown Conference: Redefining Rural, a symposium on the future of rural communities in Atlantic Canada. Newspapers Atlantic, an industry association representing 70 community papers with a combined circulation of 700,000 people, has committed to take a leadership role in the conference and to act as champions for change once the conference is over.

Since the conference is about bold ideas and recognizing the assets and innovation of rural communities, the Telegraph-Journal has committed to publish a series of thought-provoking commentaries on how New Brunswickers are re-defining small towns and the rural way of life. Some have been solicited; others have been submitted by writers who care about the subject of rural vitality and rural identity, but have no connection with the conference itself.

The two New Brunswick commentaries on this page represent the start of this series of “Georgetown letters.”

We welcome our readers to add their own voices to this debate. What is working in rural New Brunswick, and what developments or strategies do you believe will help rural communities to prosper?

Many political commentators in Canada don’t seem to realize what has happened here. An entire demographic, say from age 18 to 32, has dropped

out of the country. They still live here, but they do not exist in the federal political sense. They are still involved in a kind of politics, but at a grassroots level. They are invariably interested and active in environmental and social issues, particularly those that pollute or involve lack of programs for children, youth, the elderly.

They are not necessarily university-educated; many are working in trades, yet the liberal aspects of education has given them an articulate ability and they use it to further what we might call their “good works.” My son Tom, who has a degree from Mount Allison with an English major and minor in religion, works in Montréal as an apprentice tinsmith. He will write about its history, relevance, the advantage of an apprentice system, which is lacking in Canada, and what its worth would be to him. As well he is involved in various neighbourhood projects in Notre Dame de Grace, or NDG, as we called it in my growing up youth. The people he works and socially mingles with are varied in age and education in NDG but they are of like mind in many ways. Kindness and listening lubricate their conversations, as do tears of recognition.

They are redressing the absence of a presence, the disappearance of empathy and understanding at the federal and provincial political levels, the rise of ideological catechism and the loss of human touch within these governing bodies consisting largely of grey-faced people living within a time-worn political style.

Where I now live, in Sackville New Brunswick, at the rear end of the Bay of Fundy, a similar phenomenon exists. This is a university town of 5,000 people plus another 3,500 who are students. There are many students who are active in environmental issues, particularly anti-fracking. There is enormous environmental concern among the 5,000 locals as well who are also against fracking.

But there is something in Sackville even more interesting. It is the emergence of a rather strange and wonderful underground, another parallel universe of young people who are not university students, much as I saw in Montréal. There are young women and men carpenters, farmers, stone masons, writers, artists, musicians, ‘zine makers, festival organizers, and these people are here because the town projects a strange hypnotic appeal more abstract than physical.

These are young people in work boots, and those grey socks with the red bit on the tops, scuffed and hard worn. They are communal and talkative and they frequent restaurants where there is conversation and they fling about ideas and laughter and enjoy cranberry and walnut paninis. None that I have met are waiting breathlessly for the Globe &Mail Style section.

There is land around here that weeps for lack of farmers, and some of these young people want to farm. They want to help the land, to have an effect upon it other than the extraction of increasing amounts of money for themselves. They are of the land rather than at it. The land, like the houses within the town, is not expensive. It is a place where you can get a foothold in life for quite little.

Other things occur here in Sackville because of these parallel underground societies. There are large festivals with names like SappyFest and hundreds and hundreds of young people appear for music and conversation and the unlimbering of stress and the disappearance of frustration. Once, the Town Council panicked at the idea of young strangers within their midst and had the RCMP walk about the town during SappyFest, as many were camping in some parks within town or on the lawns of pleasant, approving home owners. And the Mounties walked through the town and had never seen such peaceful, happy, loving people and said there’s no problem, and when SappyFest was over, these people folded their tents, cleaned up everything and disappeared more happy and restored.

Much learning was had here.

In Sackville, the Saturday market abounds in fresh vegetables, with the kind of carrots that snap when you bite in, rather than bending. A 2,000 km semi-trailer ride will tire out a carrot. There is fresh lamb and beef, croissants, pretzels and wonderful bread. Conversation and laughter flows, fresh music as well.

The university has become a loom for weaving children into reasonable adults, and some of the more colourful ones never leave, becoming more of the earth and land, strengthened by the daily Tantramar winds Fundy bestows upon Sackville.

And there is a female skew to Sackville. Many of the restaurants and shops are owned and run by women. This results in very strong opposition to the frackicidal dudes who want to pin-cushion the entire province. There is a young set to these people, even the old ones. And it is in their amazement of the upwelling of young hope and vigour, as if the older ones had been re-born or that dementia had adopted an unconfused, loving look.

These young people – earth workers, artists, writers, poets – are not studying to be MBAs in order to hitch a ride on the Toronto or Calgary Express. They are apprentices and some professors here are learning from them.

It’s a kind of reciprocal or synergistic thing, engine-like – everyone learning, passing things on to each other, back and forth like a loom or a piston, only quieter – and you don’t need to oil this machinery because it seems to run on things that are already on top, not lurking a kilometer under the ground to be prodded with poison liquids by those who have given up hope and bought the moving forward mantra.

Where I now live, something different is happening.

Graham McTavish Watt writes from his home in Sackville.

Reprinted with permission from the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.