Our four political parties debated many important issues during the recent election campaign that have a direct bearing on the future of rural Prince Edward Island, like medical centres, hub schools, agricultural policy, land, and water resources.
But I found it interesting that none of our political leaders took the long view or spoke about the steady decline of our rural communities, their loss of population and economic strength, and none of our leaders advanced plans to halt that decline.
It is one thing to embody the ethos and spirit of rural Prince Edward Island, and to claim the mantle of J. Angus MacLean. But it is another more substantive thing to put forward a visionary plan to build our rural communities and loosen the centrist grip.
Modernity has made the Island a very small place, and although we don’t have a bullet train from Tignish to Souris, our modern highway system and cell phones allow us to stay in touch with each other quite easily. Accordingly, Island governments are tempted to view the province as a single community, when it is a place of distinct regions and local communities. A decade ago, this One Island Community mantra was used by the Robert Ghiz government to justify centralizing health care and other services.
Over my lifetime, the Island has seen its political champions of rural Prince Edward Island, such as J. Angus MacLean of course, and Leonce Bernard, and Pat Binns. Bernard believed passionately in the cooperative economic development model, and in local communities determining their own future. He was the province’s first Minister Responsible for Rural Development. There were modest successes, however he always complained his government colleagues were more interested in helping the big corporations like the Irvings and McCains.
The MacLauchlan Liberals took notice of rural Prince Edward Island only when it pushed back against the closure of small schools. A Minister of Rural and Regional Development was appointed during that political crisis but with no programs or resources. He was just a minister in name only with a government car and an antenna, as one up west friend sarcastically but accurately described him.
Premier Dennis King has a cabinet comprised of strong rural voices, including dairy farmer Bloyce Thompson, the political giant killer. Darlene Compton and Steven Myers both fiercely defended their communities in Opposition. Together with our Georgetown Royalty premier, and other PC members, the new minority government should be well attuned to the needs of rural Prince Edward Island.
I am hoping in the current legislative assembly the predominantly rural Progressive Conservatives will forge at least an informal alliance with their urban Greens to get things done, and rural development will become their shared priority.
One initiative deserves special attention.
The new government should consider establishing, independent and separate from government and securely funded, a Rural Development Institute. This institute would take the long view. It would conduct policy research, identify models and approaches to community development, and explore innovative ways of delivering health care, education, and other services to rural communities. It would also assist communities in accessing both private and public financial assistance for projects, and work hand in hand with communities to help those projects succeed.
There are several university-based rural research centres across Canada, such as the Rural Development Institute at Brandon, Manitoba, and the Rural and Small Town Programme at Mount Allison University. But I believe rural Prince Edward Island should have a stand-alone institute with far more than an academic mandate.
For the government of Dennis King to give birth to such an institute would be a brave and unselfish act, since independent organizations working to affect change often clash with government decision makers. But it would be a legacy achievement.
In 2013, and again in 2016, Georgetown hosted landmark conferences to explore rural issues and opportunities.
Last week Premier Dennis King was sworn in at the Kings Playhouse with children from nearby Georgetown Elementary as invited guests. What a beautiful and symbolic gesture.
Establishing a Rural Development Institute would seem to be in our new premier’s political wheelhouse.