Researching social cohesion in rural communities

by Debbie Hum

Sociologist Bill Reimer finally has the chance to help the government look through a rural lens.

For more than 20 years, Reimer has studied the changes taking place in rural Canada. Now, with a three-year SSHRC grant to research social cohesion in rural Canada, he is leading a team of 17 experts from across Canada in the first strategic study of its kind.

Traditionally cohesive and homogeneous, rural communities have undergone major depopulation and fragmentation due to globalization and changes in the economy, mobility, popular culture and communications. Although the concept of social cohesion is not new, Reimer says, the government's interest in it is.

"Urban Canada is dependent on rural Canada. Rural Canada produces their food. It processes urban pollution and it provides amenities for people to get away from the hustle and bustle. These are all things provided by rural Canada that are typically not recognized by urban people," Reimer said, following the Concordia Social Cohesion Group's first official meeting last week.

"The big problem from the rural point of view is that the benefits are not paid for. The return on selling our commodities internationally doesn't typically come back to rural but to urban Canada."

Over the second half of the 20th century, Canada experienced a declining proportion of people in rural areas. Communities that used to be tied to their natural resources industry (fishing, farming, forestry or mining, for example) have been increasingly mechanized and diversified. Support for social, institutional and voluntary services has declined. Reimer said that Canada needs to develop an explicit rural policy; many other nations have, with France and Japan the leaders in rural development.

When Reimer joined Concordia in 1972, the Canadian government was just initiating policies moving agriculture towards world trade. Informally, though, such policies have been in place since the end of World War II.

"The government policy has been that trade and the production of commodities for the international market are paramount," Reimer said. "The industries associated with natural resources have become labour-shedding as they've become more technologically sophisticated." Loggers and fishers have virtually disappeared from rural communities, replaced by machines and big trawlers.

Not all rural communities are struggling with modern changes, though. Some have proven to be highly resilient, causing researchers to categorize communities as "leading" or "lagging" within the new rural economy.

"It's dynamic and multidimensional," Reimer explained. "We're trying to determine under what conditions communities get trapped, or seem able to sustain leadership."

Since 1994, Reimer has been president of the Canadian Rural Restructuring Foundation (CRRF). In 1997, the CRRF initiated the $1.4 million New Rural Economy (NRE) project, a five-year research and education program that is based at Concordia.

The Social Cohesion Project will take advantage of the research infrastructure established by the NRE project. Researchers will look at how economic, global and regional changes have affected the level and nature of social cohesion in Canada. The Concordia team includes PhD candidate Anna Woodrow, Master's students Jennifer Perzow, Cindy-Ann Bryant, Rodrigo Molina and Shelley Harman, and data curator Roger Des Ormeaux. Many of the team members have worked together as part of the NRE project. Concordia alumnus Hassan Alam will participate from Carleton University, where he is completing his PhD.

The group will try to understand the relationship between social cohesion and community capacity-building, and identify some of the related policy issues. For example, Reimer said, until recently, Quebec rural communities were supported by the maintenance of its milk quota. The imposition of a tariff-based system last year has led to a new crisis in Quebec's rural areas, which cannot compete in the world commodity markets.

Reimer stressed the participatory style of the project. People from local communities are involved in both the formulation and direction of the project, with the goals of sharing information and providing rural communities with tools for self-empowerment, forums for discussion and debate and contacts.

The NRE project, now mid-way through its run, has contributed to numerous parliamentary discussions. Reimer cited the recent establishment of the Minister for Rural Affairs, the federal Interdepartmental Working Committee on Rural and Remote Canada and the Standing Committee on Natural Resources as examples of how the NRE's "sound research and information within context" has fed into government policy.

In fact, Reimer said with a smile, the group's research and networking activities have helped to provide focus for the "rural lens," a phrase adopted in government circles to describe the need for rural awareness at the policy level.


Reimer group

Teamwork: The Concordia group working on the social cohesion project gather in front of a map of the world. Left to right are Rodrigo Molina, Jennifer Perzow, Cindy-Ann Bryant, Roger Des Ormeaux, and Professors Bill Reimer and Anna Woodrow.

Copyright 2000 Concordia's Thursday Report.