August 10, 2006

Who Rules the Roost in Rural NB

Who rules to roost in rural N.B.
Professor says we need to celebrate the rural community

There are two very different conceptions for the future of rural New Brunswick.

One is represented by STU professor and academic superstar Dr. Susan Machum who was named Canada Research Chair in Rural Social Justice and awarded $500,000 to study country-style economic development solutions last week.

The other comes from the Toronto based C.D.

Howe Institute who issued a report a few days earlier slamming Atlantic provinces for offering easier access to Employment Insurance for people working in seasonal occupations in areas of high unemployment.

"Regionally tilted EI provisions give the unemployed some reason to stay put rather than move to areas where employment possibilities are better," says the study from the conservative think-tank in it's July 19 report, Running Hot, Running Cold: Regional Jobless Numbers Not Reflecting Hot Labour Market.

The message from the Bay Street boys is pretty obvious: handout-grabbing ruralities picking potatoes or working in fish plants outta pack their bags and head to Alberta. New Brunswick's family farmers, who are often barely making ends meet, better stop milking their cows and the public purse for the good of the national interest.

Employment Insurance for workers in seasonal industries, the vast majority of whom reside in rural areas, amounts to no less than a "moral hazard", according to an editorial in one New Brunswick daily.

Dr. Machum, who grew up in rural New Brunswick and knows its pride and problems, doesn't see it that way. "We need to be celebrating the rural community and the crucial role it plays in our quality of life and economic well-being," said Machum in a release.

Her five year tenure as Canada Research Chair will focus on the future of rural communities in Canada, the interplay between urban and rural communities and the larger social justice issues related to rural working conditions in primary sector enterprises: forestry, fishing and farming.

She will also focus on women's contributions to these family businesses.

Dr. Machum notes that around half of New Brunswick's population lives in rural areas, more than double the national average.

Farming is a major part of rural life and many small farmers work seasonal jobs to garner some extra cash income. Some farmers qualify for Employment Insurance after working in logging, academia or other professions. This cash often allows them to keep living off the land.

"They (family farms) are not a residual or marginal category of farm operations left behind by modernisation; instead, they represent a conscious economic strategy and approach to rural life," wrote Dr. Machum in an academic journal.

The C.D. Howe Institute aren't the only ones who want to force urbanization: important public services aren't properly reaching rural residents, making the simple life ever more complex.

Recently, Canada Post gave an ultimatum to some rural New Brunswickers, demanding they travel up to 40 kilometers to pick up their mail.

"We feel like second-class citizens," John Moreau told the Canadian Press, who lives in a farming community about 20 kilometres from the Fredericton post office where his mail is being held.

It's easy for us city boys to rag on rural Canada.

Urbanites are the ones who write for most major publications. We control the majority of investment capital. Cities are growing, while many rural areas suffer from out migration.

But while cities drive economic growth, they aren't great places to grow food.

Policies designed by academics in Toronto to push rural residents off the land might boost short term oil extraction in Alberta, or shipping in Vancouver. But how does one, especially an economist, measure the loss of cultural heritage and tradition?

The ideological divide on rural development solutions between Dr. Machum and the C.D.

Howe Institute speaks to a broader question that societies, economists and political movements in New Brunswick and around the world are grappling with: does the economy work for us, providing citizens with structures to meet material and communal needs? Or do we work for the economy, destroying ways of life to meet its insatiable appetite for constant growth?

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