Rural economic erosion. Limited taxation power. Succession planning.
These were the challenges identified at the Our Way Forward: Sharing Knowledge and Building Capacity for Regional Development conference held in St. Anthony, N.L., recently. The event was a collaboration between the Grenfell Campus Office of Engagement and the Town of St. Anthony.
Small town municipalities
Participating town mayors, municipal directors and members of Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) also identified issues such as clean and safe drinking water, road and bridge maintenance, wastewater system effluent regulations and regional waste management.
“Seventy-four per cent of 276 small town municipalities have one or fewer employees — they have to rely on consultants or volunteers to do the work,” said Mayor Karen Oldford of Labrador City, who is also chair of MNL, referencing positions such as water operators, garbage collectors, municipal planners, snow clearers and emergency services delivery.
Add to this equation the fact that federal and provincial legislation requires that municipalities — regardless of their size — adhere to regulations pertaining to waste water treatment and provision of clean drinking water, and the situation becomes even more dire.
Sharing knowledge and power
The collective commentary strongly supported the idea that regionalization is the answer. By working together, towns in rural areas can capitalize on shared knowledge and power. The overall outcome of the panel discussion was that most mayors agreed that such a change is needed in the region.
Dr. Kelly Vodden, faculty member with Grenfell Campus’s Environmental Policy Institute, whose team of co-investigators undertook research in several rural areas in Canada, including the Northern Peninsula, said rural development through regionalization is indeed possible.
Titled Canadian Regional Development: A Critical Review of Theory, Practice and Potentials, the research also examined areas in Eastern Ontario, the Kittiwake/Gander-New-Wes-Valley region of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Kootenay area of British Columbia and the Rimouki-Neigette, Québec region.
The question, “Why would anyone here want to live anywhere else?” came up more than once during the session.
Mayor Ern Simms of St. Anthony answered with a litany of advantages to living in the community: transportation, tourism, ecological reserves, new facilities, and more.
“To top this list, we have something no one else has: the greatest people in the world, from all over the world.”
The positivity was not just contained within the walls of the conference centre: it permeated the community. The collective decision of the residents of St. Anthony to stay in the community was at the heart of the conference. With the reality of dwindling numbers staring them in the face, how are residents to address the challenge?
Through adaptation, innovation and policy recommendations, answered Dr. Keith Storey, Department of Geography. Dr. Storey presented the research he and colleagues are conducting on regional projections for Labrador and the Northern Peninsula 2015-16 during the conference.
“We’ve got to be realistic and have these kinds of conversations and recognize there will be winners and losers.”
“The bottom line: the projections aren’t great. In several places in Newfoundland and Labrador – not just St. Anthony – birth rates are declining and outmigration is on the rise. It’s not a new story,” he said.
But Dr. Storey said we can’t “just sit idly and do nothing about it.”
“We need to talk about this because this is a problem,” he said of the demographic projections for the area. “We can’t afford to keep doing the same things over and over again. We need to act strategically.
“We’ve got to be realistic and have these kinds of conversations and recognize there will be winners and losers. Not everything can be maintained. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe we can do things differently – do almost as much with less and in better ways.”
‘Do something now’
Most importantly, everyone is in it together.
“We’ve got to be collaborative,” said Dr. Storey. “It’s not something government can impose — we need to involve the people in the decision-making process. Most of all, we’ve got to do something now. It’s going to be painful in some cases, but if we don’t do it, my grandkids and your grandkids are going to regret it forever.”
The message from the conference was clear: if rural remote areas are to survive, collaboration and regionalization are critical.
The last few sessions of the event focused on economic innovation, examples of strategic planning and case studies from around the world. Two key international agendas discussed were the fishery/port and tourism, using Iceland as an example of an island region that has refocused the way it does business and in effect saving the country from population decline and economic failure.
Since Iceland began the process of transforming itself through innovation in tourism and new processing techniques in its fishery, its economy has stabilized and tourism numbers have tripled to 1.9 million visitors a year.
The importance of place-based development was also discussed by John Hull: “What is it that you can take advantage of that will make people want to visit places like L’Anse aux Meadows?”
Heather Hall, University of Waterloo, offered some lessons that have emerged from other areas dealing with similar challenges. She said a lack of critical mass can hamper entrepreneurial behaviour. But, she added, building on local and regional assets and collaboration among municipalities creates a region that acts as a surrogate for that critical mass.