Rescuing Canada’s “Ghost Towns”; Immigration and Welcome Signals May be Key to Survival

Drive far enough along a Canadian highway and you will likely pass a town or two which appears smaller than it once may have been. Remote communities have started and developed around key natural resources all over the country. As time goes on and markets change, some of these communities have dwindled in economic importance and declined in population. They are easy to spot with a fleeting glimpse at the roadside, bearing the stark contrast of peeling paint in the homes with a yet-unyielding small-town pride. In a blink, they are gone again.

The Canadian economist and historian Harold Innis developed what is called the “staples thesis” of economics. He describes the history of Canadian development as a story “primary industries” (centered on natural resources) and regional economies. Certain staple commodities, such as wheat in the Canadian prairie and the cod of the Maritimes, have been responsible for the growth and emergence of settlements, towns, and cities throughout Canada over time. Think of Alberta’s current oil wealth and the workers that are migrating there from within Canada and from abroad and you will have a clear picture.

It is difficult to imagine Fort McMurray without oil production, but then again, Canada has seen many such primary economies rise and decline in the past. This one-trick model of prosperity has proven quite vulnerable to politics and market change.

“Many cities or communities in Canada have been settled on natural resource economies,” says Phillip Evans, a Torontonian who is studying the growth and building patterns of communities.” The fall of Newfoundland’s cod stocks and strategies since should be considered by the rest of Canada seriously. It could happen anywhere,” he assures us.

In the 1950’s, the Canadian government implemented a resettlement program for inhabitants of the more remote parts of Newfoundland, aiming to move them toward more urbanized or central locations. The program offered cash incentives and a good deal of rhetoric to boot.

“There was a lot of literature sent out … using the children as an example,” says Newfoundland historian, Tim Greene. “Hey, you want your children to have a happy healthy life? You want them to have opportunity? You want them to move to a populated centre where there are more chances for education, more chances for employment, more chances for a not-so-hard way of life … where you aren’t so dependent on the whims of nature? Consider moving. Yet, as asserted by Evans, “a lot of people were in favour of the improvements to their community, but they weren’t a fan of giving up their way of life.” About 30,000 people were forced to move in the period between 1954 and 1975.

“It made more economic sense to centralize people than to give them the roads and the power lines and the infrastructure that they needed, but they never gave any consideration to the damage it did to the person,” says Bruce Miller, a Newfoundlander who was relocated along with his family when he was very young.

The process of centralizing the population was supposed to create offshoot industries in other communities, which would in turn develop them and help them grow, but the staples model of economics proved stunningly resilient, and dependence on the fishing industry remained the primary income for much of the Maritimes – especially in Newfoundland.

In 1992, a moratorium on cod fishing went into effect with the hope that fish stocks might recover their numbers if granted a respite from human interference. It has been called the biggest layoff in Canadian history. It’s not a coincidence that many of the workers in Fort McMurray today hail from the Maritime Provinces.

This economic chapter in the story of Newfoundland and the story of Alberta are intersecting along the lines Innis describes. Migration in Canada still has much to do with following staples and the jobs which stem from them.

At the beginning of the 1950’s about 45 per cent of the Canadian population lived in cities. That number has now reached 70 per cent, casting an uncertain future for rural areas and small towns, and making Canada one of the most urbanized nations in the world. Growth is great for large cities, but the recent acceleration has strained municipal budgets and infrastructure.

“Our biggest cities – especially as a result of the growing populations – are facing very significant challenges that affect Canadians in a very significant way. It’s not something that the average Canadian thinks about on a daily basis,” says Surrey BC Mayor, Diane Watts. “The biggest issue with a fast-growing population is transportation infrastructure,” she adds. Surrey is the second largest city in BC and expected to the most populous by 2025.

Can we Rescue Canada’s small towns?

Cities are struggling with limited capacity and the rest of the country is dwindling. So, how does a ghost town revive itself when its primary industry may no longer be viable? How does it draw immigrants and workers when the pull of the metropolis appears so much stronger? If the staples pattern of boom and bust is to be mitigated, this challenge will have to be met head on.

Breathing life into the communities

There are several approaches being tried currently. Dr. Bill Reimer is a former professor of sociology at Montreal’s Concordia University. He studied rural Canada for years and, according to him, there are still options on the table for smaller municipalities.

“Surviving communities will be those that look at all of their assets – the social, cultural, environmental, not just the economic – and work at building their capacities at all of them,” he says.

Thinking regionally is a good idea. Reimer notes that communities which are working together are doing better than those working alone. The imaginative approaches toward economic diversification could yet alter the staples model of a regional economy built on one resource and take it in a more stable, varied direction.

Branding regions with festivals and tourist attractions and highlighting their unique qualities does a lot for this. Communities which may not be large enough to be tourist attractions in themselves may still benefit from regional tourism and investment.

Attracting newcomers

If economic activity is healthy enough, it is hoped that population growth may follow. The most important factor in that growth is almost certainly immigration. According to Reimer, those towns which welcome immigrants generate a much better chance of survival because they will be able to compensate for future population drops. He names Steinbach, in Manitoba, as a successful example of this strategy:

“They sought out newcomers to support a bunch of manufacturing businesses and food processing businesses, and now they have levels of immigration that rival Toronto, which is absolutely phenomenal.”

There are similar stories in Alberta, New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories and other parts of the country about small towns which owe their continued success to their ability to court newcomers. The Conference Board of Canada recently released a report stating that immigration has brought new life to faltering towns across the country. It also advised that immigration should be part of a community’s long term strategy for economic development rather than merely a short term labour solution. “Building a critical mass of immigrants in a community is important … as most immigrants choose settlement destinations based on the presence of ethnic networks,” it stated.

There are several programs in place which seek to facilitate immigration to regions where the economy requires skilled people, such as the Provincial Nominees Program (PNP) which allows the provinces to nominate people to come to Canada based on their area of professional expertise. Saskatchewan offers the Regional Gateways service, which provides “settlement advising” to new residents and information on living and working that is specific to their region.

Still, much more can be done at the level of municipalities and non-governmental initiative.

“We’re losing the idea of building the country,” notes University of Toronto public policy professor, Irvin Studin, who advocates for increasing immigration levels significantly in order to bolster the population level generally. Canada has the potential for this, especially if its urban centres are allowed time to expand infrastructure and services.

According to Statistics Canada, less than 5% of immigrants arriving in Canada choose to settle in rural communities.

As Reimer suggests, if smaller towns wish to grow and benefit from newcomers, they must turn their efforts toward truly welcoming them. When it comes down to it, the only way to build a community is to live like one.

Studin would agree.  “We miss the human side if we boil [immigration] down to this economic calculation,” he says. “That reduces a complex story to something very mechanical.”

In a sense, small towns need to do what they are already good at doing: being personable – a quality which must now take on more global dimensions. Perhaps community will prove itself another Canadian staple.

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