by Michelle Porter
As appeared on page A1

The president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies has this message for New Brunswick’s rural communities: don’t give up yet. Charles Cirtwill contends that rural areas can thrive – if only the roads and other infrastructure is in place. Roads, airports, education and – most importantly – communications, such as access to wireless Internet provincewide, can bolster opportunities for towns and villages, he says.

“There’s a vision of rural communities that says all you are going to have is a place to live. But there are all kinds of ingenious ways that are cost-effective to bring economic value to these communities,” Cirtwill said in an interview Wednesday.

“Areas of growth will build on each other. It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s not like every dollar spent in Bathurst is at the cost of Moncton or every dollar spent in Saint John is at the cost of Moncton,” he said.

“For every community the solution is different but the challenges are the same.”

His comments come on the heels of a controversy surrounding remarks made by Francis McGuire, co-chairman of the province’s Self-Sufficiency Task Force, after the release of the first of three reports about the future of New Brunswick’s economy.

Claiming that de-population of the north and small communities is a trend that cannot be stemmed, McGuire told the Telegraph-Journal editorial board on Monday that, “We could let it happen or we could accelerate it.”

Sharing a vision of New Brunswick’s future that included de-population of the north, he suggested that the province should focus its limited resources by investing in urban areas while letting smaller areas become little more than bedroom communities.

“You can make the Miramichi a commuter town with a good four-lane highway and what’s wrong with that? As long as they are making the money and going to spend it at Wal-Mart.”

Politicians and civic leaders across the province were swiftly outraged by the comments with more than one calling for his removal from the task force. On Wednesday, Acadie-Bathurst MP Yvon Godin sent a letter to Premier Shawn Graham calling for McGuire’s immediate dismissal.

“I also ask him to invest without delay the $100 million in the north he promised in his electoral campaign,” Godin wrote.

Godin did not accept the explanation offered by McGuire Tuesday in the wake of the controversy that he meant that workers would commute into, not out of, northern cities.

“That’s not what he said (Monday),” Godin said in an interview Wednesday, adding that he believes McGuire’s comments set the stage for the government to backtrack on promises to invest in the north.

Miramichi Mayor John McKay accused McGuire – and the province – of trying to divide the province in two.

“I’ll tell you what that is going to do. That is going to create two provinces. We will be dividing our own.

“We are not going to stand for the acceleration of the de-population of northern New Brunswick. This is not what the people voted for when northern New Brunswick voted massively for this government. People were not told when they voted that the government would be looking at a policy to depopulate the north.”

In the midst of the controversy, the province delayed the launch of an open forum for New Brunswickers to discuss the subject, citing “technical glitches.”

While the website for the Liberal government’s much-publicized Self-Sufficiency Task Force made its debut in cyberspace this week, the accompanying blog is not available.

There is no word when it will be launched.

The controversy reveals a deep divide amongst New Brunswickers regarding the future of the province and its rural communities.

While few across the province would challenge McGuire’s assessment of the underlying challenges facing rural communities, others offer different solutions.

“It’s a reality that we aren’t going to maintain all of our rural communities in the traditional state,” Cirtwill, president of the Halifax-based economic think-tank, said.

He believes that the challenges faced by rural communities are not unlike those faced by cities: “They are being depopulated in a big way and all have a weak connection to the marketplace.”

David Bruce, director of the rural and small town program at Mount Allison University, said that rural communities are beginning to see a new future for themselves and re-thinking their place in the economy.

“It’s not about keeping people on the farm anymore,” he said.

“It’s about what are new things that could be produced that could keep people in the communities.”

He pointed to the small northern community of Saint Quentin which has been able to re-position itself as a wood-product manufacturer.

“Can we do that across all kinds of sectors? In some sectors that might not be possible but that’s the question that needs to be asked.”

Richard LeBlanc, executive director of the Enterprise Network, representing the 15 agencies across the province, said that is exactly what New Brunswick’s rural and small communities are doing today.

“The answers won’t come from the government or bureaucrats,” LeBlanc said. “But we need the government to give us the infrastructure we need to succeed.”

He said that the enterprise agencies across the province are in the process of developing growth strategies which build on the unique strengths of each community.

– with files from Rob Linke in Ottawa