BRIDGETOWN, NS - When Annapolis County Warden Timothy Habinski goes to China, they greet him as 'Han Boya' – meaning the Warrior Poet.
He was overwhelmed when the Chinese gave him the name - and it’s the name by which he must introduce himself when he visits.
When he does go, he's revered. In 2017, he signed friendship agreements with the cities of Suqian and Quzhou.
The agreements are based on principles of equality and mutual benefit and strive to carry out exchanges and cooperation in various forms in the fields of economy, trade, culture, education, sports, tourism, and personnel exchanges. It’s all aimed towards promoting common prosperity and development.
“It really began when Annapolis County decided to step outside of conventional municipal jurisdiction and mount its own trade mission to China,” said Habinski.
“We did it, fully sensible of the fact that the province had a strategy to engage China. We felt we could be supportive of that but we also were hoping that, by virtue of going ourselves, we could really pick our partners and look for communities that were sympathetic in terms of interests and concern and find ways to develop relationships.”
While Annapolis County has a population of about 20,000, Suqian is about 5.8 million and Quzhou is about two million. China itself has more than one billion citizens, making for a seemingly lopsided relationship with a rural Nova Scotia municipality.
It didn’t stop Habinski and his council.
“That’s how a little municipality, I think, can intervene in a meaningful way in the global economy – by building relationships as opposed to relying upon policy,” he said. “So that’s what we did and it’s been bearing fruit ever since.”
The first group of students came to the Annapolis Basin Conference Centre last summer.
“Now we have an additional pilot project coming into the Trojan Sports Centre (in Bridgetown),” he added. “And we’re interested in seeing both of those facilities more completely used over the course of the year.”
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Stream of students
Habinski is hoping that as a result of those two pilot visits, a fairly steady stream of students will be coming from Quzhou, Suqian and Suzhou to Annapolis County. The funds these students bring with them will help the local economy.
Some of the students are coming as part of the provincial program that’s already in place, Habinski said.
“What we were really doing was trying to establish a parallel model,” he explains. “The provincial program (the Nova Scotia International Student Program) put in place for foreign students relies upon homestay and, in an area the size of ours, you’ll only ever have so many families that are in a position that can offer home stays.”
That’s why his goal is to establish an alternate model that takes advantage of existing facilities like the Trojan Sports Centre and the Annapolis Basin Conference Centre.
“(These facilities) are exactly ideal for hosting groups of students with chaperones,” he said. “We wanted to see if that model could be used in order to increase the number of students we could bring. So far, it seems to be quite successful.”
Peter MacLellan, executive director of the China Business Bureau of Nova Scotia, has been working with the county to organize trips. Besides the two student visits, other initiatives are in the works, including proposals of additional and specific friendship agreements between Bridgetown Regional Community School and Annapolis West Education Centre with schools in the two Chinese cities. More students are scheduled to arrive and attend a three-month cultural exchange program with schools in Lawrencetown and Bridgetown starting in March.
The China Business Bureau’s David Wang is the man behind much of the Nova Scotia-China initiatives and, in 2016, gave Saint Mary’s a $1-million gift to establish a scholarship fund for Chinese undergraduates entering the university from a Nova Scotian or Canadian curriculum high school in China. Wang has brought more than 3,000 students to Nova Scotia, including the five currently in Bridgetown.
Preliminary discussions are being held concerning trade possibilities with companies in Annapolis and the markets in the friendship cities, MacLellan said. Plus, there are coordinated tourism inquiries from the friendship cities to visit Annapolis and Southwest Nova Scotia.
Learning from each other is key in Habinski’s books.
“It’s a cultural exchange and an educational exchange,” he said. “We’re hoping to do more by way of cultural exchange come the fall. The end of September is the celebration of Confucius’ birthday, which is held nationally in China, but Confucius has particular ties to the city of Quzhou, and so we’re hoping we’ll be able to send a delegation across to China then.”
He’s hoping to include musicians from Annapolis County to participate in the celebration.
“And we’re hoping we’ll be able to receive a delegation of musicians from Quzhou just prior to that, hopefully in time for the FCM (Federation of Canadian Municipalities) board meeting at the Annapolis Basin Conference Centre, so that they can actually be entertaining leaders from across the country in conjunction with our own musicians,” Habinski said.
The response from the public has been very positive.
“I think the groups that we’ve had so far haven’t been highly visible to the public because they’ve been at institutions and because the stays have been brief, but of course these are pilots,” Habinski said.
“We’ll see larger groups of students and we’ll see longer stays and then we’ll have a lot more community interaction with those longer stays. It’s just really exciting for me. This is a community building itself through developing friendships. What could possibly be more Nova Scotian than that?”