Conference aimed at redefining rural Atlantic Canada should be launchpad for renewed hope, they say
Two women from Carbonear attending the Georgetown Conference this week both agree the event was worthwhile.
© Photo by Terry Roberts
Kerri Abbott (left) and Florence Button of Carbonear are attending the Georgetown Conference in P.E.I. this week.
GEORGETOWN, P.E.I. — Two women from Carbonear attending the Georgetown Conference this week both agree the event was worthwhile, and should serve as a catalyst for renewed hope and energy for those who believe there is a future for rural areas of Atlantic Canada.
Kerri Abbott and Florence Button have joined some 250 other so-called "doers and producers" from Atlantic Canada at this quaint, picturesque town in King's County, on the eastern edge of P.E.I.
They are part of a solid contingent of some two dozen people from Canada's most easterly province, all of whom share a view that there is a future for rural areas, but also understand the challenges are substantial.
"To actually come here and talk about the ideas and the struggles and to hear how other people have found the necessary resiliency, it's refreshing," said Abbott, a community development worker and avid volunteer.
For Button, the decision to attend Georgetown came naturally. She's been volunteering since she was 14 years-of-age, and has played a leading role on many fronts as Carbonear struggled with economic downturns — and much-needed upswings — over the years.
"This is a very meaningful step into the future," Button said of the conference, which is being spearheaded by Newspapers Atlantic, which represents some 70 community newspapers in the Atlantic region, including The Compass in Carbonear.
The conference features a broad cross-section of presenters from many backgrounds and specialties, and an impressive collection of delegates who represent what some described as the heartbeat of many rural communities. They include business, volunteer and municipal leaders from every region of Atlantic Canada, coming together in an atmosphere free of government or corporate influence.
The opening session on Thursday kicked off what is a lively and necessary exchange of ideas and observations, all focused on a worrying trend — the hallowing out of rural communities as opportunities in traditional industries such as the fishery and forestry vanish, and younger people join a growing exodus towards urban areas.
There is a strong Newfoundland and Labrador flavour at the conference, with Donna Butt, artistic director of Rising Tide Theatre in Trinity, serving as one of the four conference co-chairs.
And one of the more intriguing presenters to take the stage was millionaire philanthropist Zita Cobb from Fogo Island, founder of the Shorefast Foundation, which has made international headlines in recent months for its efforts to protect the cultural traditions of Fogo Island, and add "another leg" to its fishery based economy.
With very few exceptions, those in attendance at the conference believe in their communities, and are not prepared to sit idle.
Cobb said it's people like this that will make the difference, and she encouraged those with rural roots, and those who have benefited from rural places, to "come to the table."
Butt said it's vital that we "re-imagine our communities," and she suggested a movement be launched to bring the plight of rural areas to the forefront, much like the fight for universal health care captured the Canadian imagination several generations ago.
"They have to know we were hear," Butt said. "We're in crisis, but let's fight this battle, and let's win this battle."
Churence Rogers, president of Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador and mayor of Centreville-Wareham-Trinity, is also in attendance.
Drawn to home
Organizers are describing the conference as a good example of how regions can work together to form partnerships, share ideas and inject new energy into a struggle that strikes to the very core of rural communities.
It's what attracted Kerri Abbott and Florence Button to Georgetown.
"I'm feeling hopeful," Abbott said during a break in the proceedings on Friday, Oct. 4.
Abbott works with not-for-profit initiatives such as the food bank and family resource centre, and is passionate about issues such as affordable housing and seniors' care.
Like many from rural towns, she moved away after finishing her education and started a career in a larger centre.
But she felt drawn back to her hometown, and answered that calling.
"I had a good job, but I always missed home," she said.
She admitted it's not as easy to earn a living in Carbonear, but aded, "I've assessed that I want quality of life, not quality of income.
"The fact that I know the lady who is checking me in at the grocery store all my life … and I can have those genuine interactions is something I missed when I was in big cities."
For Abbott, one of the biggest challenges facing rural areas is a perception there is no hope.
"We have to get rid of that acceptance," she said.
Throughout the three-day event, which concludes Oct. 5, Abbott and Butt have been networking with others at the conference and have quickly discovered that, generally speaking, the challenges are universal.
Button said it was invigorating to hear from experts and those at the grassroots level, all expressing ideas and hope, though with a healthy dose of reality.
Youth and experience
Button has experienced that reality, most notably the cod fishery collapse more than 20 years ago. There was a sense of desperation in Carbonear and area at the time, and it was followed by the closure of M. A. Powell Ltd.,. a major employer in the region.
Button never succumbed to the negativity, and continued to push forward, with a special interest in theatre, tourism, community development, and the role of youth and seniors in the community.
"I think we've built on all of that tremendously," she said of the optimism and growth that seems to have been injected into Conception Bay North in recent years.
Button believes that synergy between young people and those with life experience is a resource that needs to be better utilized if rural areas have any hope of survival.
"I have great hopes for seniors and youth working together. Each can learn from the other," she said. "I think we need to be looking closely at bringing those two groups together more often."
Button added: "I have great hopes for this conference, that it's the beginning of something that's going to continue. I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe that we're making a start here."
— Terry Roberts is editor of The Compass community newspaper in Carbonear, NL. He is part of a team of community journalists covering the Georgetown Conference for Newspapers Atlantic, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org