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Saturday 26 February 2011

Our Very Own Sacred Cow

Everyone is familiar with the term "sacred cow." Of course it comes from a culture where the customs and belief systems treat those of the bovine persuasion with a great deal of respect and they certainly wouldn't think of dropping a thick strip loin on the grill. In the case of NL we have our very own version, and no it isn't the fishery. It is rural NL.

If anything the recent release of the latest report on fishery rationalization, available here, has shown that there are people out there who are willing to talk about ways to cut back the size but ramp up the sustainability and the quality. We have thankfully reached a point where we don't scream bloody murder when someone mentions cuts to the fishery. Well most of us anyway. No, now we scream bloody murder if anyone "threatens" our dear old idea of rural NL.

Evidence of this can be found in abundance in this weekends edition(February 26th) of The Telegram where there are three letters to the editor specifically related to the issue of how rural NL should not be criticized, or referred to as dying or dead. One is very critical of a recent CBC Radio piece on The Current about the community of Garnish, that you can hear with an accompanying slide show here. The spot wasn't overly negative and in fact pointed out some pretty interesting positive aspects about living in Garnish. Yet the author of the letter(Mayor Reuben Noseworthy) was "totally discusted" with the story as it aired. I'm not all that familiar with Garnish, I've only driven by, but listening to the story made me think of many other communities that I know very well, and am quite fond of. It sounds like a great place to live, where the residents share a true sense of community, and unfortunately there is an issue of a seriously aging population. I have no place to comment on the quality of the piece but it looks and sounds like a pretty typical rural community to me. Does it do us any good to deny the issues, like an aging population?

Another letter is very critical of people expressing even the opinion that rural NL is in trouble. The idea being that talking about the demise of rural communities will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. While I admit that the opinion of Randy Simms carries a fair weight in this province I think that may be an overestimation of his influence. How will be ever expect to address the issues if we don't talk seriously about them?

The next letter of mention is a pointed attack on the two part article carried by The Telegram titled "Political Myth-Busting." Up front I have to say I found the two articles interesting, wether I agree with the MUN professors quoted or not, is not important to the point here. What I find interesting is not that there has been a response, but that the response has been swift, and sharply points at the pair of CFA Profs who dare to comment on our rural communities. It was only one part of their comments but they did say that rural NL no longer had a reason for being (see related post Raison D'être) since the collapse of the fishery in 1992. The Letter in this weekends edition specifically rebuts the accusation made by Marland and Kerby that the NL fishery is subsidized, and the letter does provide some arguments  to that effect. But the author can't quite finish up without calling the Profs ignorant. This letter is but a tame version of other letters and online comments that have been posted over the last week attacking the Poli-Sci duo of knowing nothing about NL because they aren't from here. How does attacking the messenger(s) help address the issue being raised?

We managed to get over it with regard to the fishery and we have to do the same when it comes to our rural communities. We need to discuss the issues in an open and honest way without being afraid to realize that rural NL is suffering. Sticking our collective heads in the sand isn't going to help. We have to get beyond the idea of our rural existence being some sacred cow that can never be touched. I for one say fire up the BBQ and lets all sit down for a good feed of steak and figure out how we can make rural NL a sustainable place to live while maintaining the roots of our culture that we rightfully hold so dear.

Post Script
I was listening to Open Line this morning (Feb 28th) and Wilfred Bartlett called in to comment on the NL myths story. Specifically he wanted to refute the claim that the two MUN profs had made: that the damage to the fishery was not to be blamed on foreign overfishing, as the common myth states. Captain (Ret.) Bartlett launched into a raft of numbers referring to the actual fishing catches off the coast of NL indicating that indeed the myth had solid ground. Randy pointed out that the numbers indicated that the foreign tonnage outmatched the domestic hauls by a two to one ratio. That sounds like myth confirmed to me. But here's the important part, Bartlett didn't even mention the two Profs. He launched into his evidence that they myth was well founded and left it at that. He delt with the information and left the messengers out of the picture. We could all learn a lesson from Captain (Ret.) Bartlett.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Raison D'être: 1497-1992

July 2, 1992 is a day that will always be know as the day the fishery died in Newfoundland and Labrador. Following almost 500 years of living off the sea the live's of the people of this province changed forever as their reason for being was stripped away. From then until now there has been great debate over who was at fault, who "owns" the resource, and how long the stocks would take to rebuild, but regardless of either of those issues the simple fact was that a way of life was changed forever.

All it takes is a quick glance at a map and you can trace the coastline by drawing a line between communities around the Island and up the coast of Labrador. We were settled as fishing communities, our songs and stories and culture largely developed around our relationship with the sea. To put it simply, our currency was cod.

As a result, an industry worth $700 million (at the time) and employing around 40,000 people was over. While the numbers are striking, the real change for NL was immeasurable.

The CBC captured the anger and frustration of the announcement in the July 2 edition of The National as fishermen pounded on the doors of the room where then MP, and Fisheries Minister John Crosbie, announced the end of an era. The imagery is striking and the raw emotion is palpable. To refresh your memory you can watch the clip at the CBC Archives here. Perhaps the only other moment that reflected the frustration of the time was a couple of days prior to the announcement of the moratorium. Crosbie was at a public gathering, and as fishermen harassed him about details of the upcoming announcement he shot back "I didn't take the fish from the God damn water, so don't go abusing me!"

There is no doubt that even before the moratorium came into being, there had been declining catches and a series of other issues that rural communities were struggling against. Perhaps one of the reasons our rural communities continue to struggle to find a place in the 21st Century is because they have lost part of their reason for being. Can we help them find a new raison d'être?

Monday 21 February 2011

The Fogo Island Improvement Committee

In August of 1967 representatives from the communities on Fogo Island sat in a room and discussed the importance of a visit from the Premier regarding establishing a local government committee that would encompass the entire island.  Cameras rolled as frustration emerged regarding the feeling that time was short to do something to ensure the survival of the entire Island.  It's available at the National Film Board and you can watch all 13 minutes of it here.

On March 1 of 2011, a mere 44 years later the new municipal council representing the entire community of Fogo Island will be sworn in. 44 years.

During 2008 and 2009 I traveled to Fogo Island and held meetings with representatives from each of the communities on the Island and after a time it became obvious why 40 years had passed but no single structure had evolved to represent everyone. Without delving too deeply into the discussion around amalgamation, the case of Fogo Island is typical in that the need is obvious but the actions on the part of all parties, Government included, can be lacking. Luckily for the current residents of Fogo Island the recent community leaders have seen the benefits of a solid, cooperative effort and they will reap the rewards.

Amalgamation, regionalization or regional government, they must all be explored if we are to do everything possible to revitalize our rural communities in the face of rising costs and shrinking financial resources. We must keep an open mind, and people like those leaders on Fogo Island can help lead the way. Congratulations on having the perseverance to make a difference.

Rural: Is It Worth Saving?

In 2006 the Harris Centre of Memorial University hosted a presentation and discussion panel titled "Rural: Is It Worth Saving?" at the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook. This question has long been on the lips and in the hearts of those in Newfoundland and Labrador and after years of study and research there appears to be even more questions and fewer answers.

The session focused around a presentation by Dr. Ivan Emke followed by a panel discussion. Dr. Emke is a CFA who has been living and studying here in NL for many years and is widely respected as a leading academic in the field of communication and rural development. His presentation highlights both the complexity and the simplicity of the issue of rural survival.

At the time the title of the session alone caused a mild stir in the province as people have always held the "rural life" close to their heart even if they spent very little time there. It seems that as a people we hold close the rural ideal but yet fail to recognize the true importance of rural in our overall existence. Governments at both the Federal and Provincial levels have divisions called Rural Secretariat. While they play slightly different roles at both levels they are both responsible to provide a "rural lens" while developing government policy. One point that Dr. Emke makes very clear is that if we attempt to address rural areas without including the importance of the rural-urban interaction, then we'll have a difficult task to arrive at any real success.

I suggest you go here and watch at least the first 40 minutes and decide for yourself based on Dr. Emke's presentation.  I concur with Dr. Emke's conclusion, I'd rather pay now.