Community Economic Development

Community Economic Development (CED), the development of communities by the people that live in them, in the Canadian context, has had a very varied history and one could suggest a very checkered past.  One could even say it is still a history in the making as in the country among communities, policy makers and others the debate continues and many still question the benefits and realities of CED.  There is even a newer concept referred to as the “Social Economy” that is being espoused as the way forward for communities, their well being and perhaps even their very existence.  But CED is a term that has become associated with the development of communities in and for themselves for the past several decades (at least in the Canadian context). 

Earlier versions of this concept can be traced back to the late nineteen twenties and thirties in rural parts of Canada when various efforts were being pursued to address the impacts of the global depression that was impacting the lives of most communities.  One of the most recognized movements in Canadian lore is known as the Antigonish Movement which was built around the concept of adult education and centered in the much depressed area of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.  This very grassroots and community process was led by two Catholic Priests, Moses Coady and Jimmy Tompkins, and introduced co-operatives and credit unions to the Atlantic Region of Canada.

These two priests recognized that the dilemma being experienced was a human issue.  They felt the despair being experienced had more to do with fear of change and cultural entrenchment than economic or social disparity.  They understood that for real change to be effective people must become “masters of their own destinies”, a phrase synonymous with this movement. They realized that the solution lay within local people, not institutionalized support.

In the sixties, a time of great social change and upheaval in Canada, North America and other parts of the world, communities and their development came once more to the fore with the advent of social development organizations.  People were organizing around the great need for social responsibility to ensure that the poorer and those less well off in society were better cared for.  This perhaps paralleled the growing social unrest happening close by in the United States which saw the beginnings of the movement of Community Development Corporations with responsibility for improved social housing in that country.  It was also around the time when E.F Schmaucher was advocating ‘economic development as if people mattered and that “Small is Beautiful”, which is the title of his book, considered a classic by community development advocates.  It was perhaps during this era that the economy became part of the thinking of community and its development.

But, if not then, it was during the period starting in the late nineteen seventies and throughout the decades of the eighties and nineties.  The global shift of economies was taking its toll on the Canadian industries and impacting not only rural communities dependent on resources and traditional industries but causing major shifts to city life leaving a growing swath of inner city communities devastated in its wake.  This city dilemma was further compounded by the growing levels of out migration from rural communities and the upsurge in immigration as people were fleeing numerous upheavals throughout countries all over the world.

Canadian Government programs designed to address community needs of the earlier social and economic shifts became strained and often impractical.  Community based organizations designed as advocates and providers of social programs found themselves in the midst of a new phenomenon (for them) having to contend and address growing economic issues.

Communities themselves, often faced with economic collapse, began re-evaluating their own circumstance and forming new organizations around economic issues.  Governments, recognizing their own political vulnerabilities, became involved as well providing financial support, including development funds, and reorganizing its own regional development policies to reflect more community based approaches.  They adopted models from elsewhere and spawned development organizations which were created to address community economic needs.  One of the weaknesses of all most of these processes was that many of these organizations were engaged in development and economic issues with only a modicum of understanding of financial, economic and business concepts.

During these times and later there were community development organizations identified as models for others.  One widely recognized organizational model for Community Development in the Canadian development scene is New Dawn Enterprises, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.  This not-for profit Community Development Corporation, which was incorporated in 1976 (perhaps modeled after the US Community Development Corporations) operates with a volunteer Board of Directors and has had a long history of community and business development in Cape Breton.  It now has 175 employees and operates a variety of business ventures mostly around affordable housing and seniors care.

There were also examples of community transformations that were highlighted as communities to emulate.  One that comes to mind is the town of Elliot Lake, Ontario, which in the late eighties saw most of its mining operations curtailed.  It developed its own planning process with the aim of diversifying its economy, put a focus on attracting retirees and emerged as a retirement community with a thriving tourist industry.  Quite a feat in itself, in light of the fact, that it was situated in a more northern remote location within the province.

Community based development, in its many forms, has evolved since it was considered an adult education exercise, a social dimension or a stopgap for economic decline and has taken on new meaning in the Canadian context.  During its lengthy gestation period many models of community and economic development have emerged and practitioners and volunteers have become experienced, learning mostly from the grass roots.  Latterly educational institutions have become interested, and government has begun addressing policy issues that had been impeding communities and their development.  There is, I believe, in the Canadian context a shift away from traditional regional, industrial and economic development policies to one that is much more focused on the health and well being of communities.

Today in Canada there are many people within federal, provincial and municipal governments who not only support the concept but are advocating and making policy changes to reflect its importance.   The province of Nova Scotia, usually at the fore front of CED activities, has developed a unique local equity investment vehicle (CED Investment Fund) and has developed a CED policy to be incorporated by all its government departments and agencies.

Quebec has seen through its own “quiet revolution” and an upsurge of community engagement and support and is espousing its “Social Economy” as an important economic contributor to that province.  They have many Community Economic Development organizations (CDECs) working with disadvantaged people providing education, training and employment in cafes, woodworking and furniture making, amongst other community owned business ventures.  The Canadian government, while it has been funding a program for linguistic minority communities (in which I was involved for several years), has recently developed a new program to fund it, recognizing the implicit role of CommunityCapacityBuilding and CED as its main tenets.  The Canadian Government has, as well, acknowledged CED as part of its policy program for its current term of office.

There is an upsurge of educational programs around CED with at least one university offering a masters program and several others offering diploma or certificate courses.  Two are involved in this CED process in Ukraine – SimonFraserUniversity and Concordia.  Community and technical colleges are, as well, engaged in the development and delivery of CED or Community Development related programs.

So it appears that Community based Development has finally come out of the margins, its natural home where it has been a vehicle for the marginalized and dispossessed to regain control over their lives.  Whether in fact this new phenomenon in itself is sustainable, given the longer term nature of CED and its often slower progress, is still questionable in a hurried world where quick results and immediate transformation are expected.

Fundamentally what is required is an appreciation that CED doesn’t necessarily have to replicate other “successful” or large scale organizations or community transformations.  There has to be understanding that CED has its roots in the small, often the miniscule.  The real success of CED is in people and their own transformations resulting from locally driven activities that they have generated with a spark of insight, a glimpse of something new or the inspiration that comes from people seeing and doing for themselves.  It has its foundations in the small steps that people and communities have taken by banning together to revitalize themselves, to reclaim their heritage and to recognize their own and their community’s value.

Sackville, New Brunswick, took such a small step several years ago.  People came together to reclaim a former marshland that had been drained to create farmland by the Acadians who first settled there.  They not only developed a world renowned waterfowl habitat, an area of great beauty for the community but a tourist draw that has improved considerably the local economy.

A heritage of ship building in Avondale, Nova Scotia, played a considerable part in the development of a boat building school where traditional skills have been utilized to create a centre where people not only come to learn but also to watch,  participate and capture a piece of history.   This contributes as well to its economy not to mention its community pride.

The Waterville Airport Management Cooperative in Nova Scotia is a prime example of people and business cooperating.  When the municipality decided it could no longer operate its small municipal airport, the six companies who were part of this complex came together to form a cooperative to operate the airport and salvage the businesses and the employment that was important to the community.

CED is also entrenched in the coming together of people to preserve the very values that they hold dear.  TemiskamingShores, a town on the border of Quebec and Ontario, was facing decline due to its resource based economy.  The solution proposed by others was the creation of a major garbage dump and a toxic waste incinerator.  Fearing the negative environmental impacts, the community came together and resisted these solutions.  Instead, they are creating the “Cobalt Centre for Arts and Innovation”, a centre for arts and learning for the enhancement of creative people of all ages.

Each of the success stories related here, and the many more that go unnoticed, have their beginnings in the coming together of people, interested, willing and wanting to make a change in their circumstance, lives and communities.  It’s truly this coming together of collective minds and connected spirits which then spawns a plan, some basic actions and change results.

The strength of CED is in the capacity of local people, their knowledge and their wisdom.  It’s mostly about discovery – the discovery of our own talents, skills and knowledge and those of our friends and neighbours.  It is also about the exploration of what surrounds us and the dormant opportunities that, given attention, care and creative thought, can support the renewal of our community and the enhancement of our quality of life and living.

The greatest challenge of CED is finding those people with common interests and concerns in their hearts, the inspiration to explore and discover and the passion to connect their minds.  Then it is a matter of providing the information, guidance and support for CED to unfold as in the stories that were related above.

Written by Bill Pardy

For the CEDU Project, Ukraine

April 10th, 2005

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