Don Mills talks to the Georgetown Conference – Rural Redefined delegates Oct. 4 in Georgetown, P.E.I. – Jennifer Hoegg, TC Media
By Jennifer Hoegg and Terry Roberts
Towns like Kentville can be part of improving Nova Scotia’s economic story, according to the province’s leading pollster.
Presenting at the Georgetown Conference – Rural Redefined, in eastern Prince Edward Island, Don Mills said answers have to come from the grassroots level.
"It's up to us to figure out a strategy," the chairman and chief executive officer of Corporate Research Associates said.
In a provocative presentation that ranged from a critical assessment of the employment insurance program to wide-ranging statistical information about the economic health — of lack thereof — of Atlantic Canada, Mills pulled no punches about his thoughts on government involvement in efforts to strengthen and sustain rural communities.
"I've not seen government intervention into rural areas that have been successful to any great degree," said Mills.
Mills said he believes in a concept he calls "urban centered economic strategy," in which regional hubs with populations of 5,000 and greater serve a wider area — perhaps up to 75 kilometres — with health care, education and other government series.
"If you want to centralize services and give a higher quality of services, whether it's health care or education, we can do it and we can serve those people reasonably,” he said. “They don't have to move. This is about serving and supporting these communities."
He described Halifax as such a hub, but added smaller communities such as Yarmouth, Bridgewater and Kentville could also fit into this strategy.
“Kentville should be an economic centre and the strategy should be specific to what Kentville has,” Mills said after his presentation.
“Do the inventory. What are the strengths of the communities? What can you leverage? Let’s build an economic strategy to get more of that and hopefully higher value jobs in those areas and then everyone else around Kentville gets to feast of that.”
Mills clarified it wasn’t just about particular towns, but about concentrations of population and where facilities are located.
“It’s about collaboration. It’s not Kentville doing it on its own.”
All about attitude
Changing the assumption every community should have the same level of service is key, Mill said.
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“Atlantic Canadians expect to have a hospital around the corner. That’s just not possible given how broke our governments are.”
Mills argues changing the attitude towards Employment Insurance in rural Atlantic Canada is also essential.
“I know people get upset when I talk about seasonal (employment) not being the best thing, but it’s true. Seasonal work is not the solution for our economic future,” Mills said.
“Why do we trail the rest of the country? Because we don’t have as many people working full-time.
Asked about how fisheries and farming industries would be affected, Mills suggested a solution.
“Maybe those employers who need seasonable workers need to pay a higher price for Employment Insurance,” he said. “Pay for that privilege. Why should you get the benefit of getting that subsidization?
“Between 2001 and 2011, if you count up all the EI payments from employers and employees in Atlantic Canada, they took out $7 billion than was put in,” Mills said. He added that the region’s premiers want to keep the current system because it’s a cash flow to the area.
“We would be better off where we were a net contributor to EI,” he said.
Mills pointed Alain d'Entremont of Scotia Harvest in Yarmouth and Digby counties, as an example of a traditionally seasonal industry changing.
“He’s the future – he’s showing how the fishery should be done – by making it a year-round business,” he said. “You diversify, you get different stock and you process different stock different times of the year and you keep people working different times of the year. That works.”
Improving the Atlantic Canadian economy is necessary in order to create population growth, too, Mills said.
“(The economy) has to be at the Canadian average. We can’t attract people to this place because they want economic opportunity and it becomes the least attractive place to live,” he said.
“People are never going to move here just for the quality of life. I think it’s a great quality of life, but there’s lot of places I’ve seen with equal quality of life.”