Been told your town is a backwater? Challenge it with action, says AMM speaker

Society’s dim view of small-town life needs to be challenged, guest speaker 
tells municipal leaders. But it takes more than a marketing campaign

If your friends in the city think you’re a loser because you don’t live there, don’t take it personally.

There’s a deep prejudice in Canadian culture about rural life and small-town Canada, said a speaker at this fall’s Association of Manitoba Municipalities convention.

“People say not nice things about small towns,” said Ken Coates, director of the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development, and a Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at University of Saskatchewan.

“And nobody is fighting back,” he told delegates.

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“We have a major cultural battle that’s undermining the value of small towns and rural areas. And it’s why kids in high school are desperate to get away and move out the minute they can.”

Local government only perpetuates this problem when it spends too much time hand-wringing about what it can’t do and doesn’t have while refusing to embrace new ideas and innovation, Coates said. That won’t create the kind of place people want to live.

“We complain about what we don’t have in our small towns. What we don’t have there is, for some, people. We have to figure out what will work to keep young people at home and to have new people excited to come to one of our small towns.”

It starts with a welcome mat, Coates said. Local leaders could be doing much more to actively engage First Nations, Métis people and new Canadians to live and do business in their towns. Coates said he’s long felt that it is at the local level where the true reconciliation of Aboriginal people in Canada will become reality.

“I’ve been saying this for 10 years,” he said. “Reconciliation will happen at the municipal level first… if mayors and councillors and CAOs reach out to Aboriginal and Métis communities.”

Meanwhile, for many new Canadians, small-town Canada isn’t even on their radar when they eye coming to live in this country. And for the most part, they go to larger urban centres. Yet, new Canadians have so much to offer small towns as well.

“Welcome new Canadians,” he said. “They will bring new vitality to your community and add to what you already have there.”

Local leaders have other responsibilities to create a high quality of life that makes people want to live there, he said.

Learn about and embrace new technology with an eye to fostering local entrepreneurship, said Coates, who spoke of “future-proofing” one’s communities by supporting the creation of innovation labs in public spaces.

Small towns should be thinking about creating public access to technology in maker spaces, he said. These are sites where people gather to tinker and innovate with technology in areas such as computer machining and digital art.

Bring in a 3D printer to your community and you’ve “arrived in the 21st century,” Coates said.

“You as leaders can play a huge role in pushing forward a high-technology economy at the local level.”

On a more basic level, towns become more attractive when its leadership sets aside its rivalry with other nearby communities. Rivalry and competition don’t do anything except make potential funding partners or companies look elsewhere, he said, adding that successful communities understand the success of one doesn’t come at the expense of the next.

“One of the most important things you you can do to future-proof your communities is eliminate community rivalry,” he said. “You are basically responsible for each other.”

Taken together, all these approaches help to counter what may otherwise continue to be a strong anti-rural, anti-small-town bias in the culture, Coates said. He challenged local leaders to tackle this ongoing challenge of mass urbanization.

“Cities are not fine for lots of people,” he said. “They create social isolation and hardship and difficulties too.

“We have to make sure that our communities are exemplary of everything that Canada stands for. But if you do not make the case, and if you are not proud supporters and defenders of small towns and rural life in Manitoba, nobody else is going to do it for you. Everyone else is offering a different vision in another part of the world.”

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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