17 April 2007

The future of rural Newfoundland

Craig Westcott's latest commentary for CBC radio [ram file] and Merv Wiseman's reaction. [ram file].

Westcott was his usual bold self. He called for government to stop paying lip service to problems, to stop "conning people" into believing that some bureaucratic plan built on a theatre festival will save things.

He notes that the salvation of rural Newfoundland would be creating a pool of skilled workers. Out of those educated young people will come the source of new ideas or people who can change and adapt more readily than their forebears.

Wiseman is an excellent proponent of the reactionary approach, rooted in the old rural development movement that infiltrated the economic development boards and turned them, in too many cases, from producers of results based on local opportunities to producers of government grant applications for further studies into the magical properties of another blueberry festival or golf course.

Wiseman essentially spouts buzzwords like innovation as if throwing up a few whalebones and calling it a museum actually gets at the core of the issue. He misses entirely the educational and demographic challenges that are already here in many parts of the province.

A clue to his headspace? Wiseman refers to the consequences of Newfoundland dieing, not rural Newfoundland but Newfoundland, as if what was in the mythical idyllic past is all that ever was and ever can be.

His major thrust was that Westcott was being too negative. That's it. Too negative. As if smiling and denying would suffice for anything except convincing people that you were in need of therapy.

There was nothing in Wiseman's comments to deal with the substance of the issue, namely the changes that will come - some inevitably - in the mythical entity Wiseman and Westcott call rural Newfoundland.

At least Westcott did that with his comments on education. Rather than seeking to hang on to as much of what was and is, Westcott talked about the simple foundation for adaptability. He pointed correctly to the value of education in building successful economies - and societies - in a host of places from Iceland to Asia.

Education was a key idea component in development ideas 15 years ago. More scholar for the dollar, as then education minister Phil Warren called it. Education reform in the early 1990s was about giving our young people the tools they need to build their own lives and with that their province and the future.

By the late 1990s though, and continuing today, education decisions were often about keeping schools in communities with fewer an fewer children as a symbol of the community's future. Keeping more and more teachers teaching fewer and fewer children with resource spread around such that the overall quality of education stayed about the same.

More dollar. Less scholar.

And Merv Wiseman? Well, he never really had any concrete, positive actions to show what is going on.

If they are out there and Wiseman had talked about them, he'd have been far more convincing than accusing Westcott of patronizing people.

Patronizing them is what the old rural development crowd do all the time with their talk. And if that's all they have, then Newfoundland and Labrador generally, not just the rural bits, is doomed.