One Community’s Story – Trepassey, NL

One Community’s Story

This small community in Newfoundland has a population of approximately 1,500 people and serves a region of some 4,000.  My introduction to the extent of their dilemma began when I was invited to participate in the development process taking place there which resulted from the closure of its single industry, a fish plant, and the ensuing effect on some 600 workers.

When I met the people challenged with the re-development of this community, I realized that a process was needed, not structures.  In fact, the development approach to-date had been overstructured.

This community was facing one of the realities of life in any single-industry town.  The plant, the economic mainstay of the community, was closing, displacing its workers.  Earlier shutdowns had been avoided and delayed with government intervention and support.  This time, apparently, there was to be no alternative. 

Government response to this closure included a $7 Million dollar development fund for business support and a training fund – both to be administered under the auspices of the local Canada Employment and Immigration substructure – Community Futures.  Besides Community Futures, there are two development associations operating in the area under the auspices of the provincial government and employing three people.  The Community Futures, organization, with three staff, a business development centre, and an outreach program, also operates in the area under the jurisdiction of the federal government’s CEIC department.

Administratively, each of these organizations has  committees or boards which are supposed to represent a cross-section of community interests and has an operations budget.  When you couple these structures with the local municipal councils and a number of other local committees which have organized in reaction to the present situation, you end up with the maze of structures evidenced in this diagram.

We have also to remember that the federal and provincial governments have their own field workers who have jurisdiction over and involvement in these communities.  When the plant closure was first announced, consultants were hired to develop plans or strategies for redevelopment and a number of detailed written reports were generated.

Yet my own findings indicated that there had been limited community coordination and “capacity-building.”  There was marginal opportunity for true community involvement.  There was negligible training of the staffs of all these agencies in community or in economic development concepts or in how to organize people and help them interact.  The approach appeared to consist of outdated efforts to attract footloose industries into the community in order to replace the lost jobs.  At one point, it was suggested to me that this had to be done even in spite of the people living there.

The community seemed willing to participate in the development process but did not know how.  The community leadership appeared committed to pressuring governments to maintain the fish plant operation, but it was willing to address new approaches when shown some encouragement.  There appeared to be a strong aversion and resistance within the community to the numerous agencies developed to address their economic plight.  These agencies were perceived to be composed primarily of outsiders and their efforts to attract business werejudged to be unsuccessful.  There was a feeling that the money expended to maintain these structures would be better utilized to maintain jobs in the failing fishing industry.

Discussions and debates indicated some understanding that things were changing.  Yet there was a fear of acceptance and little sense of how to cope.  Residents wished to remain in the community.  Expectations were high because of high paying jobs in the fish plant (plant workers received up to $13.50 per hour plus a lucrative bonus ).  This created a most unrealistic environment.  The people’s response to the concept of training or retraining was negative, as if retraining was something that would be imposed upon them and would somehow be detrimental to them.

This negative attitude towards retraining may derive from an education system which is driven by funding and programs.  Many people who have been retrained have gone through a myriad of conventional programs, only to find that their training didn’t provide them with gainful employment, and often times resulted in some loss of status in relation to their ability to get income. (Perhaps the training affected their eligibility for UI or made them ineligible for special make work programs.)  The result was another “wall” restricting any re-development process.

My efforts to generate community involvement and cooperation, and to build some capacity, had mixed results.  My meetings involved the participation of the committee responsible for re-development, other community leaders, and leaders from all social and community organizations.  The effort provided four good working sessions and workshops.  The fifth and more public effort did not generate much interest.  The four successful sessions each began with a struggle to focus on re-opening the fish plant, but eventually led to very constructive discussions on other issues, resulting in directions to me to solicit further representation from the community. Suggestions were made regarding how to develop a process focused on local resources and small-scale developments.

Everyone concurred that other opportunities were possible, that small scale operations were preferable, that  diversification was necessary, and that education and information were fundamental to re-development.  Suggestions were forthcoming: publication of a newsletter, a workshop on business, business idea-sessions, school activities, and some exchange of information from comparable areas. The involvement of a broader cross-section of the community was considered imperative.  These recommended activities were neither program-related nor project-driven, but involved community-building.

This dynamic demonstrates the fallacy of conventional approaches to regional and community development and its disruptive effect on community, and directs us to a more natural development process.  The structural approach to development has generated alienation and dependency.  Competition has developed between the Administrators (local bureaucrats) of the community organizations that have been implemented to pursue development.  Resistance to cooperation and awareness of non-conventional development approaches have been created as each organizaton struggles to maintain its role as the “development focus” for the community.  The chart in the appendix demonstrates the horrendous creation of numerous structures which  generate confusion, duplication and a drain, both on fiscal and human resources.  Volunteer burnout and frustration was most obvious, as were negative, defeatist, and dependent attitudes.  Our inability to draw a public audience in the face of such a major community impact was telling in itself.  Both the administrators and the committee felt frustrated that the community was not caring and not participating.

Yet there are opportunities for redirection, diversification and a new beginning.  The challenge is to create in this community a model for redevelopment.  The challenge is to develop a more diverse and community-based economy by redirecting the fiscal and human resources.

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