Numbers, values and rural economies in Atlantic Canada

A wise person once said to me, as we watched a local organization slowly spiral out of existence, “You know it’s over when they’re counting the pencils in the drawers.” That stuck with me. So did the next piece of wisdom: “That’s why you don’t let accountants run everything.” (For the record, this person was an accountant.)

When numbers determine the parameters of a vision, as they so often do in economic development, it will either lead to the pursuit of growth or efficiency for growth or efficiency’s sake, or it will offer justification for abandoning projects (and populations) that don’t grow or behave efficiently.

There is no denying that rural communities in Atlantic Canada are losing population. Service delivery is difficult in small places, and work of all kinds—paid, unpaid, seasonal, year-round, formal and informal—is hard to get done when your labour force is shrinking and ageing. Many young rural people have trouble seeing a future in their community and leave if they want to pursue certain kinds of education or careers. Communities that face such challenges are struggling. But they are not in death spirals—not yet.

Indeed, the numbers can tell many different stories depending on the point you’re trying to make. For example, according to the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities (NSFM), around half of the province’s GDP is produced outside Halifax in predominantly rural areas. This year the NSFM projects that Annapolis county’s economic growth will outpace that of Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM). The productivity per worker is lower outside our major cities, but the idea that rural communities are on life support, producing nothing and draining resources from everywhere else, is far-fetched.

I could spend the rest of this blog using numbers to tell the story I like. Instead, I offer an argument based on values, in the spirit of a more ideologically diverse public discussion about the future of Atlantic Canada.

My argument is that our region needs to set goals other than economic growth and efficiency. No contemporary, forward-looking society can ignore climate change, a phenomenon the esteemed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change attributes largely to economic growth for the sake of growth. The more we extract, produce, export, consume and throw away, the worse our climate prospects get.

Many in our region have firsthand knowledge of climate change—from rising water levels in our coastal communities to changing migration patterns in the fisheries and fluctuating seasons affecting agriculture. Many also have experience that tells them the rewards of economic development do not typically go to the people who do the work or live next to the resources. Some kinds of economic growth may provide a “job” for the average person. But growth in the labour force, output, exports or corporate profits does not automatically, by market forces alone, contribute to a worker’s well-being, not since productivity and average incomes parted ways in the 1970s.

The myth that a coal mine here or aquaculture facility there will rain jobs and wealth on communities has motivated much regional and rural economic development strategy over the last century, and yet we are here today lamenting that the whole region is in decline.

So what ought we to aim for, if not economic growth and efficiency? Atlantic Canadians already value community ties; knowing and helping neighbours and strangers; enjoying wilderness, clean air and water; eating food grown closer to home; leisure, and a distance from the “rat race” of other places; self-sufficiency and self-determination. My research in rural Atlantic communities has connected me with many people who are rightfully skeptical about “booming” industries because those people have come to expect an equal or greater “bust” will follow.

Our public policy and investment can reflect these values and concerns. It’s possible to invest public money in small, nimble, niche-focused businesses like the hundreds already operating in rural communities. Some of these businesses will be seasonal because we live in a society with seasons. It is possible to aim for slow and steady growth (or even stasis!) instead of chasing lucrative, but temporary, smokestacks.

We can try to insulate our provinces from external shocks by creating the conditions for more small-scale local food and energy production. Instead of fighting over the placement of doctors, schools, libraries and so on, communities and governments could invest in mobile rural service delivery. The technologies exist to allow smaller rural schools to provide a wider program to their students: we could ensure that school policy allows and supports it. Business development organizations can offer more resources on how to start and run co-operatives in communities where no lone, wealthy businessperson is going to move in and save the day.

In order to take up any of these possibilities, our public policy and our public discussions must first appreciate that rural and urban lives are interdependent.


Karen Foster is Associate Professor of Sociology, holds the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada, and directs the Rural Futures Research Centre at Dalhousie University.

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