Regulation and government handouts will not save rural Nova Scotia communities. If the continued depopulation of our rural centres has taught us anything after generations of miracle cures, it should have taught us this.
The painful reality is that the world changes and traditional ways of life often do not fit with the new circumstances. Some communities are simply not sustainable as they were or have been. This is not to say that rural Nova Scotia is faced with inevitable extinction. What it does mean is that to revitalize rural communities we need to find a new model, and the best model, of course, is the one that works.
Make no mistake, there are rural success stories and they all have several things in common. They involve creativity, innovation, entrepreneurialism, an unwavering acceptance of rural reality and a commitment to the business case. Find a market, determine how to serve it in a cost-effective and even profitable manner, and then compete aggressively to keep and build your market share.
Success also involves recognizing an opportunity where most others only see a challenge. If urban centres are growing, then serve that market and don’t worry about the declining local one. If the West is booming, then sell your goods and services there so you keep your employees rather than lose them. If traditional commodities can no longer be competitively harvested in your community, then add value to those commodities through local processing and sell a new higher-value product.
A steelmaker in rural Nova Scotia is selling prefabricated products to customers in Alberta who simply can’t find another reliable supply. A trucking company in rural New Brunswick is hiring locally to work nationally. People are employed in rotations that see them work locally sometimes and in the West at other times. These people remain employed in New Brunswick and have full-time work that pays competitive, sustainable wages. This result would simply have been impossible if the firm only served local demand.
The ultimate message is that success rests with the people who live and work in the communities at risk. They have to find and embrace the new economic reality that will sustain their community and allow it to grow. This does not mean that they need to do it alone or that government has no role.
Infrastructure is a critical component of any business case, and it is in that physical and human infrastructure that government’s primary responsibility resides. It does not mean government need pay for, deliver, manage or construct that infrastructure. Government has a responsibility to ensure that it is in place and accessible so that communities can take advantage of opportunities as they arise, but it also has an obligation to ensure that infrastructure is appropriate and affordable. Overbuilding infrastructure is just as destructive as under-building it.
Highways, bridges, ferries, schools, hospitals are all concrete examples of physical infrastructure. But the regulatory, cultural and tax environment are equally critical if not more critical pieces of the societal infrastructure required for success.
In Nova Scotia, Atlantica and the Atlantic Gateway offer potential for both the communities that will serve as hubs and spokes of the regional and global network and communities in proximity to those spokes and hubs. Serving the trade and the transactions involved in that trade is one area of huge potential growth. The increased trade flows will bring with them another opportunity — new services and links opening ever-larger markets to rural Nova Scotia exporters.
Similarly, the completion of high-speed Internet infrastructure throughout Nova Scotia will open new markets and new opportunities for rural Nova Scotians, opportunities that have formed the basis of rebirths in many communities of various sizes across the country and around the world.
Finally, the potential opportunity presented by the B.C.-Alberta agreement on trade investment and labour mobility, and the standing invitation for Nova Scotia to sign on to that agreement should not be understated for rural Nova Scotia. We are losing our skilled tradespeople to the West because we have failed to seize the opportunity of serving the west, from here, in River Bourgeois and Shelburne.
As long as we see growth as a zero sum game, rural Nova Scotia will continue to decline. Our policies and practices must recognize that rural growth starts in our regional centres. Growth in Halifax, in Mississauga and in “Fort McMoney” does not come at the expense of our rural communities but is, in fact, the only means of creating new markets for our rural companies and a new way to revitalize and make sustainable our rural way of life.
Charles Cirtwill is the acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a non-partisan public policy think-tank in Halifax.