Future of rural areas in hands of the people, says Don Mills

Terry Roberts
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Pollster says government intervention is not always the answer

Don Mills is chairman and chief executive officer of Corporate Research Associates. He is pictured here speaking at the Georgetown Conference Friday, Oct. 4 in Prince Edward Island.

GEORGETOWN, P.E.I. — Questions about how to inject new life into rural areas of Atlantic Canada have been generating plenty of discussion and debate during a unique three-day conference in this small community.

But at least one expert presenter at the Georgetown Conference — Rural Redefined said those seeking answers should not necessarily look to the provincial or federal governments.

Don Mills said answers have to come from the grassroots level.

"It's up to us to figure out a strategy," chairman and chief executive officer of Corporate Research Associates said. The company bills itself as a leading public opinion and market research firm. 

In a provocative presentation that ranged from a critical assessment of the employment insurance program to wide-ranging statistical information about the economic health — of lack thereof — of Atlantic Canada, Mills pulled no punches about his thoughts on government involvement in efforts to strengthen and sustain rural communities.

"I've not seen government intervention into rural areas that have been successful to any great degree," said Mills.

He used Moncton, N.B., as an example, noting that when some 2,000 jobs disappeared — the equivalent of Toronto losing the auto industry — following the closure of CN operations in the city, the answer came from the local level.

"That community came together in a heartbeat. It was led by private sector and community leaders, and they figured out a strategy to become a bilingual service centre. Look at Moncton today. They figured it out," Mills said. 

Mills said he believes in a concept he calls  "urban centered economic strategy,"  in which regional hubs with populations of 5,000 and greater serve a wider area — perhaps up to 75 kilometres — with health care, education and other government series.

He described Halifax, N.S., as such a hub, but added smaller communities such as Yarmouth could also fit into this strategy.

"If you want to centralize services and give a higher quality of services, whether it's health care or education, we can do it and we can serve those people reasonably. They don't have to move. This is about serving and supporting these communities."

Indeed, such a concept has been taking shape naturally in many areas, including Newfoundland and Labrador, where larger centers such as Clarenville, Gander, Grand Falls-Windsor and Corner Brook have emerged as regional service centres.

With populations shrinking and the gross domestic product declining or static in Atlantic Canada, Mills said government must look at more creative ways of providing services that are affordable.

"It makes the job of supporting the future of places like Georgetown a lot easier because you're near an urban centre such as Charlottetown," Mills explained.

But it was Mills' criticism of the EI program that garnered the most reaction.

There was no question-and-answer session following Mills' presentation, but the issue spilled over into a subsequent session, where delegates and panelists argued that there is a role for this longstanding income assistance program, especially in rural areas, where seasonal industries such as the fishery and forestry are so important.

This was supported by a series of public opinion polls released by Mills in which a majority of respondents, especially in rural areas, were supportive of the EI program.

Mills noted 70 per cent of Atlantic Canadians have, at some point, received employment insurance benefits. He said the program has created a "sense of entitlement" in Atlantic Canada, and does not help the economy.

"This dependency on seasonal work has to be overcome," Mills stated, adding that seasonal work and dependency on income support creates social problems and "it's not good for people."

— Terry Roberts is editor of The Compass newspaper in Carbonear, NL, and is one of a team of community journalists from Atlantic Canada covering the Georgetown Conference for Newspapers Atlantic. He can be reached at editor@cbncompass.ca

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  • Fred
    October 04, 2013 - 17:23

    What a waste of time and tax $$$$$$