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It’s all about the cluster

Not much has changed on the political landscape, it seems.

Randy Edison

A short eight years ago I bid farewell to a media career in rural Newfoundland. In fact, it was farewell to the province, and the political rhetoric about wanting to “save rural Newfoundland” from itself.

Diversification; entrepreneurism; infrastructure investment – these were the buzzwords used by the political leaders of that day.

Lo and behold, I arrive at a news desk again eight years later and, while the faces and names have changed somewhat, the message about “saving rural Newfoundland” is virtually the same.

It was interesting to observe the three would-be new premiers of Newfoundland and Labrador toss around their ideas during the “debate” on all things political as the great vote of Sept. 13 approached.

The closest the made-for-TV-event got to a real debate was during the discussion over rural development.

That, in a nutshell, sums up the struggle for rural development. Everyone has an opinion on how it should be done, and the back and forth over which opinion is right has always overshadowed the potential (or lack thereof) of the merits of any particular idea.

Whether it’s tourism (which could serve as a diversification tool in some regions, but not all); the fishery (which works in a lot of areas but resists modernization as a means of advancing); manufacturing (which is limited by market size, and access) all the areas of focus take just that – focus, not discussion – to move it forward.

While the discussions about all of the above have taken place, something Smallwood-esqe occurred – the leaders of the day pilfered from “rural” to bolster regional.

Not that it’s a bad thing – regionalization of services was a necessity as populations diminished rapidly and the public purse was being strained exponentially.

However, while the politicians of the day have talked publicly about ‘saving rural’, behind the scenes, the bureaucratic braintrust have run with the unspoken reality of clustering services.

The outcome has been the natural migration of people, business and industry to larger areas that, ultimately, will lead to the demise of rural as those of us old enough to remember the small school and fish processing facility (or two) in every nook and cranny will recall it.

It’s a ‘build it and they will come” mentality. Put the services and jobs in regional centres and people will gradually forget their connection with “rural”.

They’ll live and work in the regional centres, with only the weekend retreats to what was once called hometowns remaining.

We’re being dragged, kicking and screaming (I say, tongue in cheek) into the new ways of advancement for our fair province. As Smallwood did not so subtly during his time, we’ve been led to what it is that Big Brother deems best.

A lot more subtle and sneaky than during the Smallwood agenda, today’s move to clusters of larger communities supported by investment in health (and to some degree, education) does bear some differences.

Save for a handful of consenting communities where government is offering residents a few dollars to pull up shop and leave, today’s “resettlement” program is not about hauling houses in the bay. This version consists of supporting the realization by those leaving the bays that ‘it’s all for the better’.

The housing and commercial development in Grand Falls-Windsor, for example, is impressive, and proof positive that the time has come in our evolution as a province that the draw to “home” that once meant never leaving the bay (or woods) has been replaced with at least being able to call Newfoundland and Labrador home. . . .and we’ll settle just to keep the old place around the bay.

Well-played bureaucrats – well played.

While the politicians have been on the soapbox creating a dream about “rural” Newfoundland success, you’ve helped create the new “rural”.

The one remaining success factor – at least in the opinion of this humble observer – is to move beyond the political rhetoric of ‘our youth are our future’ and truly invest in the education system.

The economies of scale can be applied to build a far more effective secondary school system, one to better position our young people on an even playing field with the rest of the world.

They won’t even realize they’re missing the “old days” that Mom and Dad enjoyed growing up in small rural towns. Those days will just be the memories shared around the dinner table – and they won’t necessarily be any worse off for not spending their younger days floating rafts or playing in the beach.

Their recreation and social experiences will be very different and, depending on the point of view, some would say much better.

That debate can go on forever, but there should be no debate that today’s “rural” youth will have access to a world class education system.

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