Agricultural Societies Exploring New Approaches To Community Economic Development

“Ultimately, we had to change our concept of who we were.”


With their fishery collapsing in the early 1990s and livelihoods disappearing, residents of tiny Ilse Madame on the southeastern tip of Cape Breton had two choices: find new ways to remain living here, or leave.

About a third of their population did go. Those remaining set out on a remarkable journey themselves – to reinvent the island’s economy and create a new way of life.

With one in three jobs gone, and no hope of the cod returning immediately, the approximately 6,000 people living in the rural and coastal villages began to engage in a process called community economic development.

“And we had no clue what that was,” said the Manitoba Association of Agricultural Societies convention’s guest speaker Silver Donald Cameron, a renowned Canadian writer and speaker whose home is in Ilse Madame.

Yet people at the same time knew what they wanted, said Cameron. Ilse Madame is a resilient Acadian community, with an intense love of their community, strong ties to the land, and a time-tested culture of pragmatism.

“A mere economic crisis wasn’t something that was going to drive them out of their territory,” Cameron said.


Since 1993 Isle Madame has become a Canadian case study on best practices for transitioning a region from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-and service-based economy with significant business advantages.

Today a much smaller-scale,

more professionally managed fishery has taken the place of the former industrial-strength one. Crafts industries, small-scale tourism, wood products industries and niche agricultural businesses now flourish.

That’s what people wanted, said Cameron. And those doing that community economic development had asked ahead of time. This was not an elite group deciding on a specific project. Everyone was consulted, particularly women and youth, about a new direction to take.

People said no to heavy industry, mass tourism or footloose manufacturers, Cameron said. They didn’t want the character of the place they loved changed.

What they said yes to was discovering the assets and strengths they already had to build on. “We asked ‘what assets do we have and what do we have going for us? That gave us a real plan as to where we should go, knowing we had the support of the community.

Ilse Madame’s calamity differs from the slow-motion catastrophe in declining rural Prairie towns, but the challenge in facing up to it isn’t, Cameron said.

“Ultimately, we had to change our concept of who we were.”


Cameron’s words resonated with agricultural society leaders at the convention who spent most of the weekend brainstorming on new approaches to revitalize the communities.

Two years ago, the MAAS board adopted “to lead in revitalizing our rural communities” as its missions statement.

The societies were joined at this year’s conference by 4-H leaders and community eco-

nomic development officers from across rural Manitoba.

It was an opportunity to engage in a broad conversation around grassroots community economic development and new ways of approaching it, said MAAS superintendent Liz Roberts who is also a provincial rural leadership specialist.

Roberts said she thinks Cameron’s speech, combined with the discussions, has sent many people home thinking in new ways about how rural communities’ greatest assets are the people living there, and the skills they possess. One remark made in evaluations at the close of the conference was that “people have undiscovered and unpublicized skills,” Roberts noted. “That really encapsulates it,” she said.

“People realize how they have their own assets and how that can be transferred to community projects.”

That’s a different approach than a few deciding to pursue a project then discovering the community doesn’t have capacity to pursue it, she said.

Cameron urged conference participants to view their own community as “a rich source of ideas” and tap them. “Authentic development grows out of who you are,” he told the 184 rural leaders at the MAAS event.

“It’s not a big plant that gets dropped into town. That’s not community development. That’s something else.”


Workshop facilitator Wendy Bulloch urged agricultural societies, whose particular challenge is getting volunteers, to think about new ways to approach their communities too.

It’s a common lament that “no one wants to volunteer any more,” said Bulloch, but she thinks agricultural societies need to think about how they approach volunteers and the jobs they assign.

Surveys show people do continue to volunteer, but they want to feel they are making a contribution to their community, and using the skills and experience they have.

“How have you engaged them?” asked Bulloch.

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About the author


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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