On rural failures and rural futures
by Don Cayo


Our small, small towns are better off than your small, small towns.

I say that with three decades standing as an adopted Maritimer, but one with roots in the rural West. I say it with sadness and affection, not a hint of “Nyah, nyah” in my voice.

And I say it now, while I can. It’s changing. With luck, changing because some of your small, small towns may regain what they’ve lost. But I also worry that our “prosperity”, build on sand, is poised to collapse.

I don’t have to tell Prairie people what happens to hamlets and villages when farms get bigger. As Linda Haverstock, the former Saskatchewan Liberal leader, said when we talked about rural life last year, “If you keep buying enough land, you don’t have any neighbors left.”

That happened here, too. More than 90 per cent of our farmers quit their land in the last 25 years. By comparison, you’ve lost about 60 per cent over 60 years.

Mind you, a lot of our loss was [pardon the pun] small potatoes. And our rural economy is diverse. Many of our former farmers can still work close to home — in the fishery, perhaps, or forestry or tourism. So nearly half our population is still rural.

But I have to tell you, though it pains me, that Employment Insurance is one of the main supports for our rural life. We collect it in droves, especially in those rural mainstays — fishing, logging and the tourist trade. It makes us dependent as a people and a region. It undermines pursuits that might, in other circumstances, give us sustainable jobs.

So where your newspapers tell of Deleau, Manitoba, [Townsfolk proud — all six of them], ours might focus on more populous Miscou Centre, New Brunswick. Here, every working-age adult drew pogey at some time in a 12-month span a couple of years back.

Deleau and its many little sisters have seen a drying of the streams of farm families who used to enrich their enterprises and populate their schools, churches, rinks, ball fields and halls. We’re likely to see the same thing. EI is drying up as an annual prop to part-time incomes.

Four years ago I asked New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna about his vision of the province he’ll retire in — then about 20 years off, now closer to 15. He foresaw prosperous cities and larger towns — he’s an incurable optimist, you know. And the hinterland, I asked? Oh, he said, it will peopled by a handful of efficient resource harvesters. And that’s about it.

In other words, he thinks we’re going where you’ve been. He’s right — unless our small towns break out of dependency and build a better future.

Perhaps they can. Not every Prairie town has suffered Deleau’s fate — or worse. And I’m heartened when I visit or read about your region to see not only sizable pockets of prosperity, but signs they are a-building. That fans hope that we, too, might find a better way.

It strikes me that the Maritimes and the Prairies face the same challenge. Your surviving small towns have also had a short-term prop — retired folks moving in off the farm. [Or, at least, those who didn’t move to Kelowna.] But they’re dwindling, like our pogey cheques. So both regions need something new and sustainable.

Can we learn from each other? Perhaps. But we had that chance in past. And, sad to say, our guys blew it.

The Dirty Thirties hit here a decade early. In the 1920s, Maritimers desperately needed economic links with the then-prospering West. Our ports, a very big deal to us, were languishing while Boston was handling imports and exports for all Canada.

Some Maritimers tried to enlist your help. A Liberal politician by name of McKenna [no relation to Frank] used to stump across the country drumming up business for New Brunswick. But others burned bridges faster than he built them.

J.W. Daniels, a Saint John Conservative MP, saw prosperity as a zero-sum game. For one region to win, another had to lose. So he came out swinging.

“The people we represent in the Maritime provinces,” he proclaimed in a verbal duel with a Saskatchewan MP, “are the descendants of the early settlers — English, Scotch, Irish and French. But whom does my honorable friend represent? He represents, to a large extent, Galicians, Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Buckowinians, and possibly Dukhobors, all newcomers, a great many exceedingly illiterate, not able to speak the language of the country and unacquainted with its constitution.”

Yet you Johnny-come-latelies seem to have figured out the simple math of Parliament. Surprise, surprise. You voted down Daniels and his cohorts.

Three-quarters of a century later, maybe it’s time to set aside yesteryear’s racism and rivalries, and forge policies that help all parts and all people of the country. English, Scotch, Irish, French, Galicians, Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Buckowinians, Dukhobors et al.