Rural N.B. is not part of the past
Fourth in a series of expert analysis articles on major issues in the 2010 N.B. election
Last Updated: Tuesday, August 31, 2010 | 2:33 PM ET
According to the latest Statistics Canada census data, New Brunswick's population is split almost 50-50 urban-rural in terms of where New Brunswickers choose to live.
Even so, economic and policy development has not paid as much attention to rural issues and problems as the population demographics and future needs warrant. What would an election campaign that considered rural issues with the same weight as urban ones look like?
For starters, it would be promoting equal outcomes for rural and urban residents. Right now rural New Brunswickers do not have the same opportunities or access to the same level of resources as their urban counterparts. For example, rural New Brunswickers often have to travel great distances using their own means of transportation to urban centres in order to access basic banking, health care and retail services.
Their localities no longer have the infrastructure and resources to meet their needs. How come our rural communities have withered in recent decades? Why must rural residents commute to urban centres for basic amenities? It is a consequence of what we prioritize.
Emphasizing the bottom line and cost accounting leads to the belief that amalgamation and centralization will deliver more bang for the buck. However, the long lasting effects of such economic and social policies promote urban growth and expansion at the expense of rural communities.
The rural becomes the periphery and the urban core grows in power and might. If such policies persist, the imbalance will only intensify.
Traditional industries 'in crisis'
It is no secret that farming, fishing and forestry are all industries in crisis. Returns from farming in open market crops are so low that most farms of all sizes are losing money.
The financial returns are so low farm succession is a problem because children do not want to take over the farm from their aging parents and nor do their parents want them to do so.
Fish stocks are still declining, the fishery shrinking. Pulp and paper production is in long-term contraction.
While every one of these industries has experienced low returns and job cuts, the recent downturns offer an opportunity to rethink how we will use what's left of these valuable natural resources to rebuild a viable and sustainable future here. They will play a critical role in New Brunswick's future.
Losing food sovereignty
If we cannot feed, clothe or shelter ourselves, we will be dependent upon those who can. Losing food sovereignty makes a province and a nation very vulnerable to the whims of the global food chain.
Being at the mercy of the ups and downs of the global market is not economically sound. As a province we would be in the position of being the "takers" of whatever the market had to offer. This is the road to increased political and economic insecurity.
Good governance would promote New Brunswickers as "makers" of their own destiny. In this scenario rather than hoping for strong export markets we would be building strong internal production capacity in order to increase our supply of local products made with New Brunswick resources for local consumption.
The spin-offs of a policy investing in the local economy would be substantial. Producing our own food, clothing and shelter is after all the bedrock of being able to "buy local." It is also necessary for the transition to a sustainable future.
The era when it was credible to believe our renewable resources were limitless, or the traditional rural economy a set of sunset industries, is over. The global economy and the global food system are becoming increasing unstable as the era of cheap oil on which globalization was based comes to an end. It is not a matter of if, but a question of when this happens.
This means the capacity to feed, clothe and shelter ourselves from renewable local resources will grow in importance over the next 20 years and beyond. Any incoming government should be promoting the capacity to become a more "self-reliant," sustainable New Brunswick.
Traditional rural industries have a major role to play in this endeavour. The rural economy is already full of business entrepreneurs large and small. Family farms, small-boat fishers, woodlot owners, harvesting contractors and sawmills all provide both self-employment and jobs for others.
The time is right to invest in a diverse local economy and support local development for local needs. It is time to support community-led initiatives for economic and social development. For example, many communities and groups have been exploring strategies for setting up and creating community forests, carefully managing development within watersheds and rebuilding local food production and distribution capacities.
These efforts are about New Brunswickers taking care of themselves and the natural resources located in their communities. Such initiatives and others like them should receive encouragement, funding and resources to help make them a success.
Challenging fiscal situation
The rising provincial debt means funding new initiatives will be a challenge. The days of major tax breaks for large corporations and the wealthy are over.
The status quo allows not only our natural resources to be moved offshore but the profits derived from them as well. Instead of financing large local capitals and those from outside via tax giveaways, grants, loan guarantees, start-up incentives and so on, the province should be investing our tax dollars in smaller, local firms whose employment and income benefits will be much more widely spread.
Government leadership needs to consult the people and work with rural residents to establish how best to manage and develop our natural and human resources for the long-term rather than short-term profit margins. They need to ask current stakeholders and practitioners how to proceed.
They need to build on the local knowledge that exists. Only with the support of New Brunswickers, with new policies and new funding initiatives in place will we be able to turn current misfortunes into opportunities to rebuild local capacity and local infrastructure.
Focusing on community development and wellbeing is what will lead to programs supporting local sustainable development.
The time is ripe to invest in smaller-scale, diverse and ecologically sound agricultural practices; to rebuild the local distribution system needed for a renewed local food system; to build a sustainable fishery; and to restore over-harvested forest ecosystems on both Crown Land and private woodlots to create a more diverse set of forest-product industries and strengthen local incomes.
Governments and scholars in the European Union are beginning to recognize that traditional rural communities and industries provide many public goods — most notably the vista of small farms and their woodlots, and of small fishing communities — upon which interprovincial tourism, local urbanities' trips into the country, and the ambience of rural living are based.
These amenities will disappear when the small enterprises that built and sustain them are abandoned. What price are these worth to the province, and how can those who create them be compensated to sustain their contribution to New Brunswick life and tourism?
It's not only the rural industries that are in crisis. Rural and small town life has been hollowed out. How do we go about rebuilding it and making it more prosperous? To attract and retain a vigorous, creative, well-educated population we have to provide the means for them to have meaningful work and a decent standard of living.
This means building and sustaining local and provincial infrastructures that support the life of rural and small town communities — educational facilities, arts programs, recreation and community centres, medical services, banking and retail access need to be part of the rural fabric — or people are not going to stay.
To use even local facilities presently requires a private car. What support should the province provide to address the lack of public transportation in rural and small town New Brunswick? Gone are the regular bus services that connected rural residents with each other, small towns and our cities.
The Graham government discovered the importance of rural river ferries. When will the province discover the high social costs of a lack of public transportation outside the city?
Long-form census needed
Of course, a major source of information for discovering the needs and problems of rural — and urban — New Brunswick is the data provided by Statistics Canada.
The long-form census tells us the realities of rural and urban life that allow us to know, debate and develop policy to address the needs and problems we face. New Brunswick needs that information.
The sleeper issue of this election is how the New Brunswick government can combine its political muscle with that of other governments, scholars, public interest groups and businesses to make sure the ill-thought plan of the current government in Ottawa to ditch the full census is stymied.
If we do not act to protect rural New Brunswick's natural resources and the knowledge to live from our own land, our future will be bleak.
Whereas in the 20th century we assumed that the developing world economy and food system would assure us security and prosperity, in the 21st century they are more precarious.
Those with vision recognize rural communities are not part of the past.