THERE IS NO QUESTION THAT RURAL REGIONS ARE IMPORTANT TO SOCIETY. THE STATE OF RURAL CANADA REPORT OF 2015 NOTES THE IMPORTANCE OF RURAL AS “THE SITE OF FOOD PRODUCTION, RESOURCE EXTRACTION, ENERGY GENERATION AND CLEAN WATER AND AIR.” EVIDENCE SHOWS THE DESIRE FOR A RURAL LIFESTYLE IS STRONG — MOST WHO LIVE IN A RURAL COMMUNITY DON’T WANT TO LEAVE AND THOSE SEEKING A MORE RELAXED WAY OF LIFE WOULD DITCH URBAN FOR RURAL LIVING. BUT WILL RURAL CONTINUE TO EXIST? ACADEMICS ACROSS ATLANTIC CANADA HAVE STUDIED THE QUESTION AND FOUND ALL PROVINCES FACE SIMILAR CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES.
THRIVING OR JUST SURVIVING?
WHAT’S AT PLAY IN ATLANTIC CANADA’S RURAL OUTPOSTS?
It’s not a situation that’s unique to Atlantic Canada.
As the Baby Boomer generation ages and retires, and birth rates have declined, the rural landscape is changing. The question is: What will happen if younger people don’t choose to live rural communities?
Who will work in the mines and forests, till the soil, run the fishing boat or keep the service industries running? Or will rural communities exist at all?
At universities across Atlantic Canada, sociologists and economists have been exploring this question for decades; watching and analyzing as rural regions evolve and change.
What they have concluded is there is no one factor that will determine whether rural communities will live, thrive or die.
URBAN: RURAL RATIO
New Brunswick has maintained a 1:1 urban to rural ratio of population for the past 30 years, while during the same period the rest of Canada has evolved to a 3:1 urban to rural ratio.
The future relies on many scenarios.
Dr. Karen Foster is associate professor in the department of sociology and social anthropology at Dalhousie and the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada.
She said rural Nova Scotia is very much a "mixed bag" of scenarios.
“There are communities that are thriving; communities that are kind of on their heels. There are communities that have more or less died.”
One of the common denominators of rural regions that are surviving, she said, is their proximity to urban centres.
“People don’t want to be completely isolated, they want access to services,” she said.
Still, there are people who want to live rurally — whether because of family ties to rural or the "off the grid" dream of building a life that is not always about chasing big money.
Gwen Zwicker is a former consultant and researcher for the Rural and Small Town Project at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick.
In that province, she said, they’re seeing younger people and young entrepreneurs choosing to live off the grid and working on things like solar power, wind turbines, renewable energy.
Dr. Laurie Brinklow, co-ordinator of the Institute of Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, says there’s a "rural repopulation" happening in that province as well, with young people coming back and taking over family farms, or getting involved in organic agriculture.
CULTURE OF VOLUNTEERISM
The provincial volunteer rate in Nova Scotia is higher than the national average, 7.7 per cent, and, collectively, in 2013, the province contributed a higher annual average of volunteer hours than any province in Canada.
“I think it’s part of a global phenomenon,” Brinklow said. “We’re thinking about health, we’re thinking about what is good for us, and fueling our bodies with healthy food and taking on less stress in our lives.”
However, living rural is not all romance. There is the reality of aging populations, the decline of traditional industries, higher living costs and fewer services like Internet and public transportation.
And making a living in rural Atlantic Canada means finding opportunities where you can.
“Here, same as in the other Atlantic provinces, you have to be able to do a number of things to be able to make a living,” Brinklow said of P.E.I. “You become a jack-of-all-trades just out of necessity. You cobble together jobs just to be able to stay. It’s that passion to be able to stay that is driving it.”
Self-reliance is also part of the mindset of those who choose rural over urban, especially when it comes to food.
Foster noted, “A lot of the stuff considered to be progress in previous generations was leading us away from being self-reliant and having communities that can support themselves and that aren’t so totally dependent on a vast global network.”
Still, there’s only so far food self-reliance will take you.
Rural communities still need new money coming in to provide jobs and a reason to stay.
In P.E.I., said Brinklow, work on renewable energy and increasing tourism will help that province move in the right direction.
She also cited the aerospace industry, research and the technology sector, as potential for the future. And the fact that P.E.I. is a smaller province, by size and population, can be a benefit, she added.
“We can turn on a dime if we need to,” she said. “We don’t have the big bureaucracy that takes three years to turn things around, you can actually make change much more quickly because on the scale of the place and the connections that we have, it’s one of the advantages I think we have. Our size, our scale.”
Dr. Rob Greenwood, executive director of the Harris Centre at Memorial University, said the factors challenging rural Newfoundland and Labrador are similar to those in other Atlantic provinces — ageing and declining population in more rural areas.
Greenwood said the province’s strength is in export of its natural resources and that’s where efforts should be focused.
A RURAL WAY OF LIFE
Of the Atlantic provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest proportion of population (60 per cent) living in rural areas.
According to data from the province’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the export value of seafood in 2017 was $1.3 billion — the third year in a row that fish exports exceeded $1 billion.
Resource-based industries like the fishery, forestry and mining are the underlying economic drivers for rural areas.
“The question is really; do you have exports in your economy that will produce well-paying jobs?” he said. “There are people willing, and some who prefer, to live in rural communities but you can’t do it unless you make money.”
While the province will continue to rely on the traditional industries for new money, he added, those industries cannot continue along traditional lines.
Education will be an integral part of that, says Greenwood.
Using the fishery as an example, he said the future of that industry lies in “high productivity, using state-of-the-art technology ... as much as possible year-round, fewer communities and fewer people but self-sustainable and still long-term in my opinion.”
Meanwhile, in Nova Scotia, Dr. Foster suggests niche industries will be part of the equation for rural.
“We can decide to double down on exports and industrial everything and then just pray for tourism on the side or we can really start to think more about the liberation of smaller, locally owned enterprises, everything from products and services to agriculture and energy,” she said.
LONG LIVE RURAL
Rural Canada is important to the country in that it is the site of food production, resource extraction, energy generation, clean water and air, and of increasing importance for carbon sequestration.
Prince Edward Island is the smallest province in Canada, in size and population. Current population (2015) is 145,211. It’s largest municipalities — Charlottetown and Summerside (pop. 32,545 and 15,654) — would be considered small towns in most other provinces.
In 2014, about 26 per cent of P.E.I.’s workforce was employed in public administration and health-care sectors; compared to 18.1 per cent for Canada as a whole.
According to the 2011 Census, 82 per cent of the population of Newfoundland and Labrador live within 60 km of the Trans-Canada Highway.
"There are communities that are thriving; communities that are kind of on their heels.
There are communities that have more or less died."
Dr. Karen Foster,
Canada Research Chair in Sustainable
Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada
FOR DECADES, SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC ACADEMICS HAVE BEEN STUDYING RURAL REGIONS; EXAMINING WHO LIVES IN RURAL REGIONS AND WHAT MAKES RURAL ECONOMIES TICK, ANALYZING THE CHALLENGES FACED BY RURAL COMMUNITIES AND THE POSSIBILITIES FOR THE FUTURE.
SOCIOLOGISTS AT UNIVERSITIES ACROSS ATLANTIC CANADA HAVE WRITTEN NUMEROUS REPORTS AND STUDIES SHOWING THE FACE OF RURAL IS NOT ALWAYS THE SAME IN EACH SMALL TOWN. WHILE MANY RURAL REGIONS RELY ON RESOURCE-BASED INDUSTRIES, THERE IS DIVERSITY IN THE CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES BEARING DOWN ON EACH SMALL TOWN IN ATLANTIC CANADA.
THE CONSENSUS AMONG THE RESEARCHERS, HOWEVER, IS THAT NO MATTER THEIR DIFFERENCES, THE PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN RURAL COMMUNITIES SHARE RESILIENCY AND A DETERMINATION TO SURVIVE.
DR. KAREN FOSTER
CANADA RESEARCH CHAIR IN SUSTAINABLE RURAL FUTURES FOR ATLANTIC CANADA.
RURAL TOWNS DO BETTER NEAR URBAN CENTRES
Dr. Karen Foster is associate professor; department of sociology and social anthropology, at Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S. She is also Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada.
Currently she is involved in a five-year research project (2018 to 2023) focusing on the sustainability of rural life in Atlantic Canada.
Foster sees a number of different potential futures for rural Atlantic Canada, depending on what parts of the economy governments decide to focus on.
One trend she does think will continue is the movement of people from smaller communities to larger towns within the rural setting.
“The places that tend to do well are those that are within a reasonable driving distance from urban centres, which still have their own identity and rural feel. People don’t want to be completely isolated, they want access to services.”
DR. LAURIE BRINKLOW
UNESCO CHAIR IN ISLAND STUDIES AND SUSTAINABILITY
EMOTIONAL TIES PULLING PEOPLE TO RURAL
Dr. Laurie Brinklow is co-ordinator of the Institute of Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, the UNESCO Chair in Island Studies and Sustainability and a board member of the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation (CRRF).
Brinklow is hopeful of the future of rural P.E.I. and thinks the island is on the right path.
New technologies, renewable energy and the strong sense of community are some of things she cites as reasons for the resiliency of the island.
While the province isn’t immune to similar challenges faced by other provinces, such as outmigration and a decline in traditional industries such as agriculture, Brinklow says there’s a strong emotional connection to P.E.I. that makes people want to live here.
“There’s such a strong sense of community, a sense of identity, in Prince Edward Island.
“I’ve lived in many provinces in Canada and I found that in P.E.I. there’s just something special about this place that attracts people, makes them want to come back and settle. A lot of it has to do with the rural landscape, the ocean, the lifestyle, and the quality of life.”
DR. ROB GREENWOOD
PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT FOR MEMORIAL UNIVERSITY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE BIG TO SUCCEED
Dr. Rob Greenwood is executive director, public engagement for Memorial University and of The Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development.
Prior to his appointment to the Harris Centre, he was assistant deputy minister of policy in economic development departments in Newfoundland and Labrador and in Saskatchewan.
Outmigration, aging populations and the movement of people to urban centres are the biggest issues for rural communities, he says.
In the reality of lower birth rates in developed countries, Greenwood suggests governments have to re-think some ideology.
“I think the key distinction for policy makers and leaders and people is that we have to quit equating development with population growth (and) there are a lot of examples around the world — we like to use Iceland — but The UN index of well-being is full of small jurisdictions.”
“You don’t need to be big to succeed but you need to be well governed and you have to have exports. Increasingly, because of the skills and the knowledge needed to be highly productive you need good educated entrepreneurs and workers.”
DR. GWEN ZWICKER
RURAL AND SMALL TOWN RESEARCH GROUP, PRESIDENT
YOUNGER PEOPLE LOOKING FOR SIMPLER LIFE
Gwen Zwicker spent nearly 20 years involved in rural research as the director of the Rural and Small Town Programme at Mount Allison University.
Since 2011 she has been president of the Rural and Small Town Research Group of Sackville, New Brunswick.
Zwicker said one of the biggest problems facing rural New Brunswick is outmigration. A lot of seniors and youth are moving into larger centres to be closer to services.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom.
There is also a movement of people looking for a simpler life in smaller towns.
“We do have a number of younger people that are moving to rural areas, young entrepreneurs that are choosing to live off the grid. We have a number of young entrepreneurs who are working on things like solar power, wind turbines, renewable energy.”
The co-operative sector is especially active in Nova Scotia; with 136 co-ops operating in rural areas compared to 156 in urban areas. Although fewer in number, rural co-ops generate 1.8 times the revenue, have three times as many members and twice as many employees, compared to urban co-operatives.
HERE FOR THE
QUALITY OF LIFE
Rural New Brunswick has had its challenges but the people who remain there do so for reasons that may have less to do with money, and more to do with non-monetary aspects of quality of life. — State of Rural Canada Report (2015)
WE EXPLORE THE COMMUNITIES THAT ARE HOLDING ON AND THE PEOPLE WORKING WITH CREATIVITY AND DETERMINATION TO ENSURE THEIR HOMETOWNS HAVE A FUTURE.