By Karen Bradley with Richard Bell
“The Right to be Rural” was the provocative title of a talk on November 15 at the Musquodoboit Harbour Public Library by Dalhousie professor Dr. Karen Foster.
Foster ran through the litany of rural-put-downs by urban elites that we are all already too familiar with. But she also touched on some more recent ideas about how rural communities could create locally-based economies that don’t depend on the old boom-and-bust cycle of extractive industries like coal or gold, or the destruction of renewable resources like clear-cutting forests.
Foster said urban elites see rural communities as “unnecessary expenses,” places that are “on life support, funded by the rest of us.” Depending on extractive industries is a losing bet, since when the industry runs out of product, it’s the workers and their communities who are left holding the bag, with usually no support from the departing industry or the governments who benefitted from the tax revenues.
And then there’s the Eastern Shore’s unique burden of being officially classified as an urban area because of the provincial legislature’s 1996 decision to force the amalgamation of Halifax County into the unwieldy and unwanted HRM.
As a result, people living in the rural communities of the Eastern Shore are ineligible for federal assistance for “rural” areas. One of the most notorious examples of this inequity shows up in the frequent emergency room closures; the federal government will reduce the student loans of young doctors who agree to serve in a “rural” area by several thousand dollars a year. But doctors in Musquodoboit Harbour, and Sheet Harbour, and Middle Musquodoboit don’t quality—they’re living in an “urban” area.
But there are hopeful signs across of the Eastern Shore of people working together to overcome the obstacles that rural communities everywhere struggle with. Almost every issue of the Cooperator has a story or two showing the strength of the area’s social networks, and the energy and imagination of its community organizations and entrepreneurs. There are discussions about the virtues of this or that location for the new high school, the need for better Internet connections, the best ways to protect our coastal fisheries.
And we hear about new businesses working together to develop unique product collaborations and joint projects. At a recent fundraiser for Lea’s Place in Sheet Harbour, Rebecca Atkinson, already a pioneer with her Sober Island Brewery business, talked about her plans for working with other nearby businesses to create a whole new range of products, including beer soap and beer jam. In Musquodoboit Harbour, the Uprooted Café takes advantage of having a great local baker, serving its daily sandwiches on bread from Dobbit Bakehouse.
Nor should we ignore the ability of Shore residents to work together to prevent something bad from happening, like the Concerned Residents of Porters Lake, Lake Echo, Preston and Mineville Areas who stopped a developer from locating a construction and demolition debris dump that would have threatened all their communities with heavy truck traffic and pollution.
One of the more interesting ideas in Foster’s talk was her claim that the key to rural development and citizen activism is “right-sizing.” What is created along the Shore and in the Musquodoboit Valley needs to be sustainable at the local level, by the local people, using local wisdom and experience.