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Building on tradition holds promise for the future of rural communities in Atlantic Canada

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It used to be that if you told someone you lived in rural Atlantic Canada, it was assumed you must be a fisher, farmer, logger or miner. Those industries are still the economic drivers in small-town Atlantic Canada. But innovation, technology and exposure to consumers around the world has led to a renaissance and tradition has a brand new vibe.


Finding a way forward requires community leadership, creativity and courage, and requires community members to work together to find specific solutions to the issues they face.
Natalie Slawinski, The Democracy Cookbook, from The Telegram Nov. 27, 2017

Fogo Island.
Fogo Island.

Taking the past into the future

It was a change or die decision.

The business started by Kier Knudsen’s grandfather in 1919 was facing a pivotal moment.

It was 1992 and Ottawa had just declared a moratorium on northern cod.

The Dark Tickle company, in the small town of St. Lunaire-Griquet on the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, had been built on the buying and selling of cod fish.

“We were traditionally fish buyers/merchants,” says Knudsen. “We had a general store selling hardware, groceries, dry goods, fuel, clothing, everything essentially.”

The moratorium changed everything.

They sold off most of the business — the fishing supplies, hardware and their trucks.

“It was a struggle for us; we just held on by the skin of our teeth.

“We hit the point where we had to change or die.”

It was tourism, and a small idea, that made the difference for Dark Tickle.

In the late 1980s, as more visitors began to wander up the Great Northern Peninsula to visit the Norse settlement at L'anse aux Meadows, the company had added a craft section at the back of the shop — selling locally made items.

Then tourists started asking where they might be able to buy bakeapple and partridgeberry jams.

Knudsen’s parents went in search of commercial producers to provide the jams, and found nothing.

They decided to make their own; sourcing wild berries — picked by local people on the barrens and bogs around Newfoundland and Labrador.

Today jams and sauces are the centre of the Dark Tickle business; the product widely available on store shelves and on-line.

At their rural store visitors can also watch the jam making in progress and enjoy treats in the recently-added café.

They’ve also added a boat tour operation.

While they’re considered a rural success story, Knudsen says doing business outside the major centres has some particular challenges.


17,800

That is the number of people employed in the agriculture industry in Atlantic Canada in 2018, according to the Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey.


Shipping costs for the required supplies — particularly bottles and sugar — are expensive when you’re over 300 km away from the nearest supplier.

Add those shipping costs to the final product, he says, and you’re at a bit of a disadvantage, especially if you’re competing online with producers of similar products.

On the flip side, however, the cost of business rent and taxes is lower in a rural community.

Knudsen also notes the decision to build a business where his family did is not solely about the money.

“It’s about quality of life.”

He and his wife lived in downtown Toronto and in the United States before making their way back to their rural hometown.

As for government’s role in rural business development, Knudsen says communities might have depended a little too much on government for the answers.

But he does think governments can help rural businesses and communities simply by making decisions for the long-term and the benefit of all, rather than just to get them through the next term of office.

15,207

That is the number of people who held commercial fishing licences in Atlantic Canada in 2017, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

“It seems successive government after successive government have just made poor decisions, stupid decisions that create debt loads for all of us.”

When it comes to government policy, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) keeps a close watch on how decision-making impacts businesses.

Jordi Morgan is vice-president of the Atlantic Canada chapter of the CFIB.

He says rural businesses will always hold an important place in the larger economic picture because resource-based industries, like fishing, agriculture and forestry, are essential and are rural.

“I don't think a province like Nova Scotia is going to survive on video technology development,” he said. “Things like agriculture will always be needed.”

Yet there are challenges to rural business and living, like the labour force.

“Access to labour is generally in the top three principal concerns of our members,” Morgan says, “and certainly in rural areas it’s a much deeper concern.”

The answer will lie, partly, in immigration, he says.

“It’s not a magic bullet but it will help in growing our provincial populations.”

He said local communities need to be able to bring people in from other countries and understand how to retain them and make them part of the community.

Morgan added the education system in Atlantic Canada must also focus more on helping students see the potential in entrepreneurship and career opportunities, opportunities that don’t necessarily depend on a university degree.

63

That’s the number of countries that purchased forestry products from New Brunswick in 2017, according to the Government of New Brunswick’s natural resources exports highlights report. The value of the exports was $1.9 billion.

“We need trades people as much as we need university students,” he said, “but the education system is generally set up around a liberal arts degree, sending students off to university."

He says the education system has to adjust and be mindful of what our labour needs are, so students can understand all their options.

“I think the more awareness they (students) have about the opportunities available to them — whether it’s the trades or entrepreneurship — and if they like living in rural areas, then it can become a viable option for them.”

While some governments in Atlantic Canada — notably Nova Scotia — have made progress in reducing red tape and lowering the tax burden for small businesses, Morgan says more needs to be done.

Governments also need to continue to help build better Internet in rural areas.

Without a decent Internet service in today’s world, he said, a community or a business is at a disadvantage.

“As we see more opportunity opening up from the point of view of people being able to do businesses from wherever they want to be, then there’s an ability for people to live in a small community and conduct business right around the world.

“And a lot of people think that would be a great lifestyle choice.”


To improve our immigrant retention rate, we need . . . an immigration strategy for Cape Breton that focuses on finding immigrants who will thrive in a rural setting instead of bringing immigrants with an urban history into a rural setting where they have the least chance of succeeding and being retained in the long term.
— Adrian White, CEO of NNF Inc in a column in the Cape Breton Post, July 15, 2018

Alberto Wareham is the president of Icewater Seafoods based in Arnold's Cove, N.L.
Alberto Wareham is the president of Icewater Seafoods based in Arnold's Cove, N.L.

Putting a twist on tradition

Alberto Wareham doesn't see Arnold's Cove as rural anymore.

This town (population 949) is just a 90-minute drive from Newfoundland and Labrador's capital of St. John's.

The town sits on the doorstep of an oil refinery at Come By Chance, and the Bull Arm industrial fabrication site — where huge floating oil platforms took shape for the Hibernia and Hebron offshore oil fields.

Every day, citizens of this town can look seaward to see oil tankers sailing past — on the way to the Grand Banks oil fields to pick up crude, or enroute to Whiffen Head to offload their valuable cargo into storage tanks for eventual shipment to North American ports.

It’s a visual reminder of how this place is connected to the larger world.

With that in mind, the president of the Icewater Seafoods doesn't see his community as dependent on the traditional way of doing things.

That is especially true when it comes to the way his company approaches his province's oldest export — codfish.

Alberto Wareham beheaded codfish as it gets ready to start the process towards being freshly frozen.
Alberto Wareham holds a beheaded codfish as it gets ready to start the process towards being freshly frozen.

Wareham and Icewater have built a technologically sound processing plant, delivering the cod caught in Placentia Bay and elsewhere around Newfoundland and Labrador, to high-end markets in Europe.

He employs over 200 people from Arnold's Cove and the surrounding area with a highly automated system.

They buy fresh cod from independent fishermen from around the province and produce what Wareham calls “the freshest of the frozen fish.”

They don't bother with lobster, crab or shrimp as other processors around the province have done. Instead, they've stayed true to the fish that put Newfoundland and Labrador on the international map in the first place.

"Everybody looks to cod as the future again," said Wareham.


Devon Strang explains the process they use to distill vodka from potatoes on his family's farming operation.
Devon Strang explains the process they use to distill vodka from potatoes on his family's farming operation in Malden, New Brunswick.

Meanwhile, on a farm in Malden, New Brunswick, Devon Strang is hard at work.

This is a sixth-generation farming family and in the shadow of Prince Edward Island — the widely recognized potato capital of the country — the Strangs have been harvesting potatoes since 1855.

Their reputation is in premium, quality potatoes. It is what has helped them grow their farm from its original five acres to over 700 acres of land currently.

But there comes time when you have to start looking at other ways to expand.

Acquiring more land was out of the question.

There was also the question of what to do with all the smaller potatoes that weren’t marketable.

Father and son brainstormed and came up with the idea of potato vodka.

After several years of study and fine-tuning the process, Blue Roof Distillery was born.

"(The distillery) keeps us busy in our down time,” said Strang.

The distillery — named after the trademark blue roofs found on the Strang farm — opened in 2017.

It’s allowed them to provide work for their staff outside of regular farming season and provide the business with a second revenue stream from their traditional crop.

Sullivan Cullen bottles some of the premium vodka being produced at Blue Roof Distillers. Cullen was recently hired at the distillery to help keep up with demand for the new product.
Sullivan Cullen bottles some of the premium vodka being produced at Blue Roof Distillers. Cullen was recently hired at the distillery to help keep up with demand for the new product.

"It is getting harder and harder to make a dollar; we saw a void in our province and in Canada," said Strang of the locally produced vodka. 

It’s ideas like this — turning potatoes into vodka and producing high end cod for high end restaurants — that are proving rural Atlantic Canada is a place of ingenuity and innovation.

Entrepreneurs like Strang and Wareham are proving the economy of rural Atlantic Canada is still tied to traditional industries, but with a bit of a twist for the future.


There is actually opportunity here,” said Allen. “You just have to make it for yourself. You can do anything here, if you do it well, you can make it work.
— Karen Allen, Brook Village Grocery, from a story in the Chronicle Herald March 28, 2018.


STRENGTH THROUGH SOCIAL ENTERPRISE

At Memorial University of Newfoundland three departments have teamed up to explore and nurture social enterprise projects.

Connecting with community and business leaders the MUN Centre for Social Enterprise is helping people network and share ideas, and driving discussion on how to use social enterprises to build strong communities.

Dr. Natalie Slawinski and Dr. John Schouten are two of the members of the team. They recently travelled to Norris Point for a workshop on the theme of social, economic and environmental well-being of Western Newfoundland.

The following is excerpted from an op-ed that appeared in the Memorial University Gazette:

As strangers driving into Norris Point, N.L. on winter morning, we get an impression of both sleepiness and industry.

TAX BURDEN

The majority of small- and medium-sized businesses in the four Atlantic Provinces identified rising business costs and heavy tax burden as the greatest challenges currently facing their business.
— Canadian Federation of Independent Business

The tracks from the previous car are being whisked away by a broom of wind and snow. A bearded man piloting a snow blower raises a hand of greeting as we pass. Not much else is happening but pride and activity are evident.

We see it in the tidiness of the houses, in the neatly stacked firewood, in the shovelled walks. C&J Rumbolt’s general store is open for business with everything from homemade jams to beer and cigarettes to winter coats.

The coats, stacked in a cardboard box, are $50. The conversation is free.

We have come to this village surrounded by Gros Morne National Park to meet with a group of local community champions dedicated to the social, economic and environmental well-being of Western Newfoundland.

The topic of discussion is a “PLACE Model of Community Development,” derived from seven years of research on Fogo Island by a Memorial University-based team in partnership with the Shorefast Foundation.

Our meeting in the old Bonne Bay Cottage Hospital — repurposed into a a hostel, health retreat and community centre — is fuelled by homemade chili and a passion for Western Newfoundland.

As we present our model, the discussion is lively and studded with personal stories. The acronym PLACE signifies five principles for community development that emerged from our research.

WHERE DOES THE MONEY COME FROM?

Twenty-five percent of small businesses in Atlantic Canada say unsustainable government spending is the biggest problem facing their provincial government.
— Canadian Federation of Independent Business

It also evokes the primary condition for rural renewal: a deep and abiding love of place. Each step in the model elicits recognition and personal stories from the people

around the table. The steps are as follows:

Promote community champions: Community champions advocate for the community and work tirelessly to improve it. They have “an unwavering faith in a path forward,” as Shorefast chief financial officer Diane Hodgins explains.

Link insiders and outsiders: Insiders, including local volunteers, municipal government representatives, business owners and other residents, possess deep knowledge about a place. Outsiders, such as visiting artists, industry experts, media and academics, bring new skills and perspectives, often helping insiders to see their community with fresh eyes.

Assess local capacities: It’s easy to take local treasures for granted when you have lived with them your whole life. Outsiders can help insiders to better appreciate what they

have. Insiders can also take stock of their community’s unique assets by asking, “What do we have? What do we love? What do we miss?” Answering these questions can reveal underused capacities . . . inviting people to explore new opportunities.

Convey compelling narratives: Communities facing long-term challenges can develop self-defeating narratives.

Successful community development depends on finding and sharing positive stories about the place and its people. The right stories can reframe challenges as opportunities (and) ... shift mindsets from scarcity to abundance.

Engage both/and thinking: Community development work is full of contradiction and conflict.

Tensions emerge between the old and the new, between tradition and innovation, between the community’s past and its imagined future, between supporting local businesses and benefitting from global markets. It’s tempting to see such opposing forces as either/or propositions with winners and losers. Successful community renewal depends on both/and solutions.

It is through commitment to place, and the principles of PLACE, that champions muster the energy, creativity and other resources to renew a community’s economy and sense of purpose.

Our model highlights the importance of community champions gathering to share ideas so they can continue to leverage a social enterprise mindset. With this mindset, they harness the tools of business in a way that makes their communities, and indeed the whole province, stronger.


NEXT WEEK

We explore the challenges, and solutions, for rural Atlantic Canada.
Get the complete series here
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Email us your thoughts at deepdives@saltwire.com.


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