Zita Cobb speaks at the Georgetown conference.
By Terry Roberts
The discussion about ways to redefine rural Atlantic Canada during what many are calling a pivotal period in history got off to a compelling start Oct. 3 in Prince Edward Island.
Newfoundland philanthropist Zita Cobb from Fogo Island and Donna Butt, artistic director of Rising Tide Theatre in Trinity, shared their visions about the importance of maintaining a strong rural foothold in Atlantic Canada at the Georgetown Conference.
After three decades in the corporate world, Cobb returned to Fogo Island in 2005 to establish the Shorefast Foundation. Over a 10-year period, the foundation is directing the investment of some $60 million into initiatives designed to preserve the culture of Fogo Island and strengthen its economic base. Of this, some $45 million is coming from private donors, mostly from Cobb.
"What we're trying to do is hang on to what we have, and create these economic engines and try and make it work," Cobb explained.
The foundation's initiatives, including an inn and artist studios, have attracted worldwide attention and created much-needed employment.
Meanwhile, Rising Tide Theatre has helped transform the tiny community of Trinity into a major tourist attraction. It now employs about 45 people.
Butt admitted it's no substitute for the loss experienced following the closure of the cod fishery in the early 1990s, but she said it's vital that people not give up on our rural communities.
"We can't just sit by and watch the lights go out one by one," she said.
There are no easy answers to what many are describing as a crisis situation. Not every town can count on someone like Cobb, whose wealth, vision and passion is literally changing the social and economic landscape.
With very few exceptions, the 250 attendees at the conference believe in their communities and are not prepared to sit idle.
Cobb said it's people like this that will make the difference, and she encouraged those with rural roots, and those who have benefited from rural places, to "come to the table."
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She used the co-operative model on Fogo Island as an example of how rural areas can survive. The co-op was established after the last fish merchant pulled out in the late 1960s, and as a result, Fogo Island — though its population has shrunk from a high of 6,000 to roughly 2,400 — continues to have a deep attachment to the fishery.
If everything had been left in the hands of what she called "distant capitalists," she wonders what would have happened to Fogo Island.
She stressed that maintaining rural areas will not happen without strong partnerships at every level, with everyone prepared to "be awake, alive and pushing and shoving to make anything happen."
She believes strongly that local ownership, preferably community ownership, is important to the viability of rural communities.
"We also need access to great design and we have to build new connective tissue to get to markets," she added.
She said the focus is too often on economic capital and not enough thought is put into the other essential forms of capital — human, social, cultural and natural.
"We usually kill all those in trying to maximize economic capital," she said.
She cautioned that co-operatives are not always the answer, describing the model as an "organized way to fight with each other." But if the local fish plant has to close, she noted, at least the decision will be made at the local level.
Butt suggested a movement be launched to bring the plight of rural areas to the forefront, much like the fight for universal health care captured the Canadian imagination several generations ago.
"They have to know we were hear," Butt said. "We're in crisis, but let's fight this battle, and let's win this battle."
— Terry Roberts is editor at The Compass newspaper in Carbonear, NL. He is reporting on the Georgetown Conference for Newspapers Atlantic.