Chronicle Herald Editorial–Unlocking Rural Potential

The Last Stand
Schools, Communities and the Future of Rural Nova Scotia

By Paul W. Bennett  

Unlocking rural potential Editorial, Chronicle Herald, October 18, 2013

Visiting Wolfville on a recent balmy Saturday, it was easy to believe a rural renaissance in Atlantic Canada, the theme of three Opinion writers today, is not just possible, but underway in some places.

Traffic was bumper-to-bumper on Main Street for long stretches of the day, eventually requiring the services of a town policeman to direct it, which he did with efficiency and panache.

People swarmed the lively public farmers’ market in town and the cluster of three family-run markets further west. Shoppers could find an array of local micro-branded foods and crafts, some with loyal followings, in addition to the draw of just harvested apples, squash, peppers, potatoes and the like. Others came for the U-picks or a tour of one of the local wineries, another growth story for the area. Streets teemed with Acadia University students, who increase the town’s population of 4,300 residents by another 3,900 (more than 400 from outside Canada) during the academic year.

All in all, a postcard snapshot of a creative, industrious community, diverse prosperity and an attractive way of life.

Some will say Wolfville, like other university towns, is a special case. And, of course, it is. A recent report on Wolfville by the Community Foundation of Nova Scotia tells us Wolfville has been the fastest growing municipality in the province in recent years, with a 16.7 per cent rise in population since 2001. It attracted 41 immigrants last year and its percentage of foreign-born residents (11 per cent) is double the provincial average. More than half the population has post-secondary education and there is a high rate of self-employment. But 27 per cent of working-age population is low income, compared with a 16.3 per cent provincial average, so not everything is paradise.

While Wolfville may be in the vanguard of rural revival, other communities are beginning to capitalize on their own strengths. In Opinions today, publisher Paul MacNeill of Island Press Ltd. and Brian Lazzuri, a Virginia native who picked Antigonish over Washington to pursue community journalism (he’s managing editor of the Casket), write about ideas on rural viability that bubbled up at a recent Georgetown, P.E.I., conference attended by community leaders from across Atlantic Canada who believe that local “doers and producers” can lead this transformation. Mike Gushue, a home-based consultant who loves the pastoral tapestry framed by his office window, in Moschelle, Annapolis County, believes we have barely scratched the surface of selling the better life in rural Nova Scotia to skilled “immigrant entrepreneurs.”

Rural residents are also in the forefront of re-imagining public services. In Nova Scotia, the most innovative thinking in education today has come from the grassroots Small Schools Initiative’s drive to create a new model of community school that delivers education efficiently on a human scale while also serving as a focus for community development. The Last Stand, Saint Mary’s education professor Paul Bennett’s new book on the movement (www.fernwoodpublishing.ca) should be required reading for the new education minister, and for the economic development minister, too, when they’re sworn in on Tuesday.

Intriguingly, the new cabinet will makes its debut in rural Nova Scotia. Incoming premier Stephen McNeil, who hails from Annapolis County, will introduce his ministers to the public in the old colonial capital of Annapolis Royal. A harbinger, we hope, that Mr. McNeil is keen to tap the ideas and energy of our rural revivalists.

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