It should have been at the beginning of the mandate, but the NDP government has new rural development initiatives going. How will they square with the "jobs obsession" principle that has got us this so far: the auditor general confirming the convention centre is a pig in a poke and should be reviewed, the Port Hawkesbury biomass plant looming as a financial and environmental disaster, and the negatives of open-pen salmon farming jumping out of the water?
Let's focus. Halifax booms, the rest of us lag. It's been going on a long time. How much of a "crisis" is this? How hard should we strive to "fix" it by pumping money into subsidy-sucking schemes in the countryside to create jobs at any cost?
Take western Nova Scotia. It could as much be described as an area of labour shortages as one of job shortages. As the lobster season opens, deck hands from P.E.I. are here to work. Most of the able local guys took off for Alberta a few years ago. Same in construction. Any job worth over a few million -- a school, a seniors' place, a bridge -- is done by construction firms from Halifax, with mostly Halifax tradesmen rattling back and forth.
Any substantial new industry not related to traditional work and requiring more than minimal skills would have to attract workers from elsewhere.
The "need for jobs" can be misconstrued. Last spring, Premier Darrell Dexter said he was pushing road work in western Nova Scotia because the area needs jobs. That would include a strip of highway near me. The job was done by a company from P.E.I. Its crew went home on weekends. Roadwork as job-creation is a notion that peaked in the 1930s.
And there's the psychology of the piece. I was in a grocery checkout line in Yarmouth the day the Bowater pulp plant in Liverpool closed for good. The fellow ahead told the cashier that he drove a pulp truck and was now out of a job. I asked him what he was going to do. He shrugged. "Go to Alberta," he said, not at all perturbed.
Worker mobility in these parts has always been high and easy, starting 150 years ago -- to the U.S., then Ontario and elsewhere in the 1950s, and now mostly to Alberta. It seems to be part of the culture. Of the kids I knew in my country school in the 1950s, two-thirds left, myself included. Some returned. I've never heard anyone complain of having to leave. Nor do I hear individuals today complain of lack of jobs. No "jobs crisis" in other words.
For municipalities dealing with declining tax bases and deteriorating infrastructure, it's obviously different. Yarmouth is almost a classic case. Geographically disadvantaged, it's been declining from its Confederation-era peak, and losing the ferry was its ultimate kick in the butt. Everything else has been going wrong since -- population declining, things closing, real estate scams, the South West Shore Development Authority mess. The area has been looking for the bottom so it can bounce back. A drop in the Canadian dollar that would re-juice the lobster industry doesn't seem to be in the offing, so here's what governments can do for the place: Get that damn ferry to the U.S. back.
Here's something else. A friend mentioned a house for sale across the street from his in Yarmouth that he hadn't thought would sell at the price, given a down market. But it was snapped up by a retired couple from Ottawa. "They probably sold theirs for $300,000 to $400,000 and bought for $170,000," he said. A nice nest egg and you get out of the rat race. It dawned on us both: Part of the mix outside the Halifax economic zone is a "retirement economy." Newcomers spend, volunteer, juice up the culture (Yarmouth has an active cultural life, despite its bedraggled state as a hollowed-out downtown attached to a mall). The down side is increased pressure on the health system.
"Newcomers" -- who may have been here for decades, and who tend to be educated -- also explains, in part, the furious reaction whenever "economic development" presents itself in environmentally destructive, often short-term, job-poor ways: quarries, fracking, mining, open-pen salmon farms, etc. Word to those contemplating rural development anew: Put this retirement economy in your calculator.
We don't need desperate, pre-electoral, jobs-obsessed stuff. I mentioned on CBC radio a couple of weeks ago that an NDP internal party critic had faulted the premier for "being obsessed with the vision of men in hard hats going to work." Next I hear, on the same CBC, Dexter wearing this proudly. Jobs was his passion, and he was going to pile-drive ahead no matter what.
As the Earl of Chesterfield, an old British wit, said, "When you have found out the prevailing passion of any man, remember never to trust him where that passion is concerned." More or less my own sentiment.
Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was first published in the Chronicle Herald.
Photo: Benjamin J. DeLong/Flickr
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