Rural Communities – creating a stable environment


We happen to be living in one of the most interesting periods in human history.  Societal shifts unlike any we have witnessed before are testing and stretching our ability to comprehend either the problems or their solutions.  The resulting quagmire is generating negative forces, some being unleashed in Canada as a mechanism of constraint by senior governments and others as a means to keep control of people and their grassroots movements.  The belief is that a negative environment will develop fear and as such suppress a very human element of expression – the protest. The reality is quite the contrary: negative forces of any kind bring out people’s worst perspectives rather than their more positive elements. The result is louder protests by people who are struggling to understand and to make the changes in their lives that this period requires.

Instability, friction, and social upheaval are evident everywhere.  Only with hope, inspiration and encouragement will we ever realize any modicum of a peaceful society.  All the great teachers over the centuries have taught this. Christ was a living example and used his abilities to spread hope, not despair; peace, not radicalism; happiness, not sorrow.  How have we drifted so far from our foundations?  How will we regain stability to enable us to bring back a balance? 

The answer, I believe, lies in re-examining the past, exploring the present and conceptualizing the future.  Who will do this?  I would suggest the answer lies in encouraging as many as possible to participate in such a process.  And who will lead? Should it be government? Business?  The general public?  Or should it be the church?

The answer, again, is that they all must participate.  The push will have to come from individuals, like ourselves, because it is only ourselves we control.  We must then use our own ability to influence, to challenge whichever lobby we happen to be part of.  In essence, I am suggesting that we can’t wait for someone else; we have to begin ourselves.

To do this, we have to understand what is happening in society.  My own belief, is that the rapid shifts in technology have provided awareness and intellectual development which, sadly, have vastly outstripped our spiritual growth.  We have become more aware of external forces and less aware of internal human forces.  We are spending more and more time addressing the external needs of our bodies and less on our inner workings despite having tools that now allow broad- ranging exposure to the many spiritual teachings of the world.

An analogy can be taken from our fishery on the East coast.  We have embraced technology that makes us more efficient fishers, but we have neglected to balance this with nature’s capability to supply the fish.  Modern communications technology has allowed us opportunities to share information, to explore other cultures and beliefs, yet we have utilized it largely to entertain and to create false impressions of the world.  But the danger in both cases is that we might scrap the technology rather than examine its misuse.  We might even be tempted to retreat to some mystical past which holds a certain nostalgia for all of us.  Yet, the world is a better place today than it was yesterday – despite the violence and upheaval that seems to predominate – and this situation is a by-product of our ingenious use of technology.

So technology and communication have improved society and our lives and will continue to do so, but we must find mechanisms that bring a balance to its uses. Let me tell you about one community in which I was involved:

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.

The challenge for us today is one of conceptualizing a new promised land as so many prophets and teachers have done before.  Next, in a language that people understand, we must articulate the possibilities of the bright and wonderful world that can open for us through the proper use of the tools that have been made available.  We need to present a view that is positive in order to counteract the negative forces that have taken control of the information networks and the political agendas.

The church has had this role since its inception.  Hope, peace, harmony, and positiveness are the foundations of Christianity and of most other religions.  The issue we are dealing with is education – spiritual, economic, social, and all inter-related.  This will not be the first time churches have waded into such environments and certainly will not be the last.

The present focus on economics and on our fiscal positions must be of concern to all of us.  The solutions being advocated and the fear-machines that are coming into vogue, I suggest, will only exacerbate the situation.  No society that has been built on fear and repression has developed and prospered .  Economics, invented by people, will only improve when people believe that improvement is imminent, when there is hope in the future and when they feel that have the ability to accomplish and contribute.  Budgetary cutbacks by themselves are not the answer.  A rethinking and restructuring of activities are fundamental prerequisites to fiscal sustainability.  A meaningful process of communication and interaction is mandatory.  Present consultation processes are basically one-way communications; yet it is only with exchange and a sharing of insights that understanding is possible.  We might use the analogy of electricity which flows only in a closed loop – open loops generate nothing.

The present process of escape into other realities will not provide the solution; indeed, it will only shift us further from our present reality.  The same can be said for philosophies that advocate relocation of people.  It was never the answer nor will it ever be.  The present large influxes of fiscal stimulus are not addressing the real issues.  A recent article in the Halifax Chronicle Herald relating to the town of Canso, a small fishing community in Nova Scotia, began with the sentence: “Even twenty-five million dollars couldn’t bring back the fish.” In fact the article went on to say that it only helped to repress the spirit of people because now they had no hope. They were aware that they had received their bailout and wouldn’t receive another.

The reality has been that the money spent in that tiny community since 1990 has only provided the stimulus to demoralize the people, to lower their self esteem, and to diminish any hope of survival.  The fisheries moratorium package in Newfoundland and its appended training programs will do the same.

In listening to the voices of the people of the affected communities one can hear the anguish, the stories of dissension and the breakdown of family and friendships that are occurring.  Sometimes I ask myself whether I am the only one who hears; then I think that perhaps I am listening incorrectly and missing what is really happening.  That is why I agreed to come today and share these thoughts and to ask, “Do you hear the same things? Are you feeling the same emotions? Are you thinking the same thoughts?”  If you are not, and no one else is, then maybe it is time we do do something different.

Those living in many rural areas believe they cannot provide for themselves, or they think that someone else must.  Many have been led to believe that someone else will provide – and in some cases that is true.  The reality for most people in rural areas is that they have neither the skills, awareness, nor the confidence to survive where they live – and a move elsewhere will be more difficult.  We must understand that relocating people, providing adjustment and often times long-term care is not a less-expensive process.  It has been attempted in native communities – Davis Inlet is but the latest tragedy.  It was tried in Newfoundland where it probably set the development process back a quarter century.  We are still addressing the social and people costs.  We have to begin a process of developing people where they live, providing education and understanding.  Then these people will either develop economies where they live or relocate on their own.  In either case with proper awareness training and education that leads to human development, they will have the confidence and inner strength to contribute wherever they happen to end up living.

My own belief is that we are witnessing a downward spiral of economic and social activity that will only be arrested when we realize that the issue is not economic or social; the issue is people.  People must have awareness, education and understanding along with social and spiritual values that provide confidence and hope for the future.  Development is not about factories, real estate, or other artificial creations; it is about identity, a sense of accomplishment, contribution and fulfilment.

The downward spiral is being caused by lack of a policy which focuses on people, whether they come from rural or urban areas.  We are witnessing in rural areas a continual erosion of the population with a continual outflow of potential leadership and ability, leading to a gradual but constant erosion of the population, the economic base, and the ability of the community to sustain itself.  And the influx of rural people into urban areas places a burden on these larger centres to develop infrastructure and to provide the transition support required.  The result is a gradual depletion of the economic base of urban centres as well.  Thus the whole structure of our society is being diminished rather than enhanced.  What results are budget deficits, further cutbacks, program curtailment, weakened support environments and the present malaise and despair.  Everyone tries harder to do more with less, not realizing that perhaps they have to do less – and do it differently.

While I believe we are arriving at a new plateau of intellectual and spiritual understanding, I also believe we require a re-definition of parameters and a re-examination of our values.  Destroying everything is not the solution to any of these dilemmas. What is required are rethinking and restructuring.

We have to begin a massive effort to reorient people and to re-establish basic spiritual values.  Because conventional social and economic programs aren’t working, we have to re-design wealth-creation and wealth-distribution.  We have to establish new methodologies to integrate local decision making into regional democratic decision making.  We have to find ways to address the present avoidance and deflection of human issues which are caused by fear. We must devise means to create and provide a supportive environment that allows true reflection and self-analysis.

Fundamentally, the issue we face is that of human resistance to change.  Overcoming the inherent intransigence of people to change is the real challenge.  Finding the key to unlocking the spirit of individuality while providing hope and support is basic.  Understanding how each of us fits and interrelates in society in order to complement each other is likewise fundamental.  These are spiritual issues, social issues, and economic issues.  Imposed values never work. We have only to look to eastern Europe as the latest example: learned values are mandatory for a stable, progressive and sustainable society.

When you examine fishing communities of Newfoundland, farming communities of the prairies or manufacturing communities in Ontario, conisder for a moment the analogy of a boat overturned in the sea. When a boat capsizes, people tend to cling to the gunwales (sides) until help arrives.  They become paralyzed with fear. Most are unwilling or unable to let go and make the attempt to swim for shore.  Government’s attempts to help them have come in the form of high speed crafts filled with money, experts and programs.  Many who are clinging reach unwittingly for these as solutions but find themselves pulled along unable to control what’s happening to them.  Others cling for a while but eventually let go and either drift helplessly or are drowned by the wake.  Those who do manage to survive become weakened, demoralized and diminished.

Governments never seem to understand that what we need to build are slow stable crafts which are recognizable to those unfortunate to be left clinging. (Obviously, these must be built by those who understand.)  The process, then, is to gently assist those in the water in boarding the strange, new craft.  Subsequently, a sensitive and understanding approach is required to overcome the trauma of the experience and to provide an awareness of why the craft capsized in the first place.  An education process can then be instituted to develop an understanding of the new craft and explain why it is safer, securer and how it will provide for their needs.

This kind of craft can only evolve from a hope-filled, positive, supportive environment.  With caring people to assist, people will come to understand why the outmoded older vessels are no longer seaworthy.  They will recognize that by working together, sharing and learning they can build new designs which will enable them to move forward in the changing sea of life.

And what is the role of the church?  As we know, there is a plethora of interests groups who are representing causes, issues and problems.  We have governments addressing economic, political and social issues.  We have unions representing wage earners and business groups representing their interests.  We have programs to solve every ill in our society and those that rail against them and those that lobby for them.  In the Newfoundland fishery collapse we have most groups addressing the fish and fishing issues – overfishing and management.  But who will represent people?  Common, ordinary people who are fearful, demoralized and with little hope they will be able to remain where they live or ever again be economically stable?  The stability of the church has always been an anchor for them. And it is the church which must regroup and reinvent its approach in order to assist in re-establishing faith, hope and trust in society.

The process will involve reviewing the past and re-establishing fundamental values while recognizing the present world with all its technological advances and conceptualizing the future as we wish it to be.  We – as leaders, as church – must develop approaches that rescue, stabilize and support people who are moving into the next phase of human and community development.

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