Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.6

November 20, 2003


William Reimer sees hope in Canadian rural communities

by James Martin

The New Rural Economy Project 2 (NRE2) held a three-day workshop in St. Damase and Gatineau at the end of October that included a session for Canadian policy-makers. An initiative of the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation, NRE2 is a cross-country, multi-institution study of how 32 rural communities are coping with a dramatically changing economy.

The workshop offered participants the chance to reflect on the project’s progress since receiving a $3 million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada last autumn.

Concordia sociologist William Reimer, who is NRE2’s research director, explained that the workshop really marks the seventh year of this project.

“The first NRE was focused on the changes in rural Canada, its increasing diversity and complexity. NRE2 is about discovering what kinds of options rural people can choose, and are choosing, and the outcomes of these options.”

Many rural communities once heavily dependent on labour-shedding industries, such as mining and forestry, must now find new economic alternatives or face extinction via the vicious cycle of out-migration. As populations shrink, so do essential services, in turn forcing more people to leave.

NRE2 not only looks at creative solutions for reversing this trend, such as tourism initiatives, but also encourages the exchange of ideas among these communities.

During the St. Damase portion of the workshop, 10 field site participants spanning the country from British Columbia to Nova Scotia presented the issues facing their communities, describing how they’ve dealt with them, and with what results.

“They identified quite a number of challenges,” Reimer said. “Some of the more frequently mentioned were loss of young people, lack of profitability in farming, inadequate or inappropriate health services, environmental insecurity and climate change, tourism and economic development.”

Nearby St. Damase is one of the NRE2 project’s 32 sites, so workshop participants also toured the community to see how it is repositioning itself economically. Recently installed water treatment and waste water-processing facilities are expected to attract new industries to the traditional farming village.

St. Damase is also exploring initiatives such as farm tours and specialty cheeses that take advantage of its close proximity to the Montreal marketplace. This is an excellent example of the often-overlooked influence of the rural on the urban.

“St. Damase is an example of sites where the traditional economy provides a strong basis for the new economy,” Reimer said. “They have been able to diversify and expand in ways that fit the new demands for services and manufacturing – most likely facilitated by their proximity to a major metropolitan market.

“Many of our sites have not been so fortunate due to their location or the resources on which they might draw. At the same time, we have been struck by the diversity of response to the changing conditions in these other sites.”

The workshop then decamped for Gatineau, where participants presented their findings to 100 policy-makers from a wide variety of federal and provincial government agencies and other groups such as the Trillium Foundation, Solidarité Rurale, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Canadian Co-operatives Association.

As an initial step toward establishing a sustained dialogue with policy-makers, Reimer calls the workshop “a success.” There was enthusiasm for repeating the event, and staging smaller meetings throughout the year that would allow more intensive discussion.

“The weekend confirmed our overall focus on capacity-building, and has inspired us with the innovations generated by people in our field sites. For example, the ways in which the small town of Benito, Manitoba, has made use of the Internet for development of its local library; or how Cap-à-l’aigle, Quebec, used a local interest in lilacs to create an annual festival drawing people from around the world; or the emergence of a self-generated network for information and support among our field sites. “It provides a remarkable contrast to the ‘doom and gloom’ representation of the future for rural Canada that appeared last month in Time magazine. The diversity of responses that we’re seeing from the sites reflects considerable innovation and resilience.”