Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Telling a new rural story: Our small communities are more vibrant than you might think

As a town councillor, it was a gratifying, refreshing experience to be surrounded by other leaders with such optimistic energy for the future of rural areas, writes Mallary McGrath.
After attending a conference on mobilizing small communities and towns in N.L., Mallary McGrath says it's time to reframe how we talk about rural. (Submitted by Mallary McGrath)

As Newfoundlanders and Labradorians headed to the polls on election day, a group of passionate community leaders gathered on the province's west coast to have conversations surrounding our valuable rural towns and communities.

Yes, valuable rural communities

The truth is that there are many positive, profitable initiatives happening in rural parts of the province. Some traditional, others not so traditional.

Just ask any of the individuals including entrepreneurs, academics, teachers of skills, or community volunteers who maintain and sustain their communities one meeting, one grant, one event at a time, who gathered at the conference.

I think there's a lot to be learned from events like this about how to create a new relationship between researchers and rural communities.- Brennan Lowery, PhD student

All of these participants from various backgrounds shared a common belief in the resilient spirit of rural towns and their people — and the belief that rural Newfoundland and Labrador can and will continue to survive. 

The main theme of the conference in Norris Point was telling a new rural story.

Participants discussed the seemingly pessimistic attitude that exists about the present and future conditions of our rural communities. We consistently read about dwindling populations, deteriorating infrastructure and outmigration.

While these are very real, concerning problems for our communities, we must also not forget that our towns are surviving. It is where we believe we belong, we are here, and many communities will always be here. 

The irony of the event was also in its location.

The former Bonne Bay Cottage Hospital is now known as the Julia Ann Walsh Heritage Centre, which is also a hostel and community space. (Mallary McGrath)

Inspiration space for conference

Housed at the former Bonne Bay Cottage Hospital (now known as the Julia Ann Walsh Heritage Centre) in beautiful Norris Point, participants were surrounded by the physical history and narratives of the community: a real-life, thriving example of how a community turned the closure of their cottage hospital into a community asset.

For participants it proved to be an inspirational space, stirred by the memories of all the people who passed through the halls of the cottage hospital throughout their lives.

A hospital which was advocated for by a local committee when Bonne Bay was not on the original list of the 12 proposed locations for cottage hospitals and built-in partnership with the community.

According to a display in the building, people in the region contributed 10,000 hours of work, 90,000 feet of lumber and $12,00 in cash to help construct the hospital. Consequently, an ideal location to host conversations on rural resiliency decades later!  

There were many objectives that arose from the three-day event.

Participants at the recent Telling a New Rural Story: Mobilizing Assets for Vibrant Communities in Newfoundland and Labrador Conference. (Mallary McGrath)

One clear outcome of the conference was the consensus that we need to voice the new rural story — a realistic narrative that communicates the activity, progress, development, adaptation and hope that is present in our communities.

The story that involves people wanting and choosing to stay. Participants of the event agreed that utilizing participatory community media to give a voice to this story will be a practical first step.

The telling a new rural story conference felt like a real step toward bringing people together for the good of rural Newfoundland and Labrador.- Ivan White, Bay St. George Mi'kmaq Cultural Revival Committee

Grassroots communications highlighting the valuable work of community groups, local businesses, innovative leaders and ideas, and the sharing of knowledge will serve as a useful tool in communicating that rural life has not perished, it is very much alive. 

This work can leverage the arts in community development, inclusive community leader networking spaces, regional youth hubs, using traditional skills and materials to create new objects, identifying a community's assets, communicating with the Centre for Social Enterprise at Memorial University, etc. 

Also adding to the exhilaration of the conference was the presence of a locally operated community radio station. The Voice of Bonne Bay (VOBB) is also housed in the basement of the former cottage hospital.

Community leader Joanie Cranston chats with Grenfell Campus associate vice-president Kelly Vodden about the significance of bringing together rural leaders and voices from our communities. (Mallary McGrath)

Driving the change

While some discussions were broadcast over the airwaves of VOBB, upstairs a special internet radio event took place in partnership with Ryakuga, a local grassroots communications company.

Ensuring that such community centred conversations are accessible and inclusive via a tool such as community media, is a vital component of bringing together the many forms of leadership that exist. 

Inevitably the conversations held during the event were stimulating for many of the present community leaders. Ivan White from the Bay St. George Mi'kmaq Cultural Revival Committee attended and was optimistic about the outcome and future.

Rural communities are driving a lot of change in Newfoundland and Labrador right now and at gatherings like this, it's easy to see why.- Joshua Smee, Choices for Youth

"The telling a new rural story conference felt like a real step toward bringing people together for the good of rural Newfoundland and Labrador," said White.  

Likewise, Joshua Smee, the provincial expansion coordinator of Choices For Youth was also enthused about the event.

"It's always inspiring to see boundaries between business, community organizations, and the arts dissolve in the face of a common goal," said Smee.

"Rural communities are driving a lot of change in Newfoundland and Labrador right now and at gatherings like this, it's easy to see why." 

Ivan White Jr. asks his father Ivan White Sr. about the conference. Ivan White Sr. attended on behalf of the Bay St. George Mi’kmaq Cultural Revival Committee. (Mallary McGrath)

The forum also helped show how collaboration between communities and academics can help in telling the new rural story.

Brennan Lowery, a PhD student at Memorial University, reflected that "the discussion we fostered at the cottage hospital really highlighted what can happen when academics do research with rural communities."

"Not for them or about them, based on what the community considers to be important. I think there's a lot to be learned from events like this about how to create a new relationship between researchers and rural communities."

As a town councillor in my home community it was a gratifying, refreshing experience to be surrounded by other leaders with such optimistic energy for the future of rural areas.

When like-minded, motivated people come together in a space such as the former cottage hospital that was built largely by the community and for the community, critical conversations on shared experiences and commonalities become the foundation on which cohesiveness and commitment for change are built. 

We're ready to reframe how we talk about rural.  

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Mallary McGrath is a municipal town councillor in her home community of Branch.

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