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Keeping small towns alive, building communities that thrive

Saving our small communities has less to do with keeping our kids at home than giving them reasons to return

Rural communities across Canada know the challenges all too well. Populations are shrinking, and services of all kinds are getting harder and harder to maintain, not only for businesses but also for new Canadians, the disabled, the elderly and those suffering from mental health challenges or addictions.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Doug Griffiths, a former Alberta minister of municipal affairs and author of a book on community building says these problems are not inevitable.

Griffiths knows a thing or two about small towns. He grew up on a ranch and visited hundreds of communities in Alberta while doing the research for a comprehensive report called Rural Alberta: Land of Opportunity. The report lists 70 recommendations concerning education, health care, transportation, community infrastructure, arts and culture, and more.

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After writing the report, Griffiths went on the speaking circuit to share what he’d discovered, when one day it dawned on him that people weren’t really getting the message. So he used a trick he had learned when he was teaching school. He turned his message around and developed a presentation which he called 13 Ways to Kill your Community.

book coverGriffiths explains his rationale. When he talked to his students about what success looked like, they would tell him, “Yeah, yeah we know.” But when he turned it around to, “What would you have to do to fail?” they were able to recognize their destructive behaviour.

Griffiths used the same principle for his presentation on rural communities, which he then turned into a book (published by Frontenac House). That book then went on to become a national bestseller and is now in its fourth printing.

Questions to ask

What’s the most important factor when it comes to whether or not your small town will succeed?

No. 1 is your attitude, says Griffiths. “As the old saying goes: If you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right,” he explains. “Attitude creates the culture and that’s what’s most critical to success or failure.”

Then Griffiths makes his point: “The community itself has to decide it wants to be successful. And it has to believe that it can achieve its goal with or without government participation.”

Griffiths lists the factors that must come together for healthy communities, ranging from a good water source to creating a welcoming atmosphere, supporting local businesses and the arts, and more.

Griffiths knows that the one you thought would be on the top of the list is the one that’s missing.

The fallacy that Griffiths repeatedly heard from well-intentioned people when he was on the speaking circuit was that communities must keep their young people at home.

It’s a misconception, Griffiths says. Instead, young people should be allowed to go off and explore and learn new things. The point is not about finding ways to keep the youth from leaving, says Griffiths. “It is dependent on you finding a reason for them to want to come back.”

Rural communities can have a lot to offer, agrees Dee Ann Benard, executive director of the Alberta Rural Development Network, a not-for-profit partnership of Alberta’s 21 post-secondary institutions whose goal is to enhance communities.

Healthy communities that are welcoming can be good places to raise kids in a more relaxed environment where people know each other, Benard says. “It’s amazing what people can do in rural communities.”

Benard points to the success of Olds, Alta., a town of 8,500 people an hour north of Calgary. When companies began leaving town due to slow Internet connection, a non-profit corporation was created to install a high-speed fibre optic network. Now residents and businesses have access to Internet speeds 10 times faster than what’s available in cities across Canada, and at competitive pricing. This is a boon for business, residents and the agricultural college located there.

Like the other provinces, rural Prince Edward Island is also experiencing an aging and shrinking population. Tired of governments that didn’t seem to be doing enough, in October 2013 Prince Edward Island community newspaper publisher Paul MacNeill organized a conference that brought together key people from the four Atlantic provinces. The grassroots event was funded by the province’s community newspaper industry association, which put up $25,000 for the event.

MacNeill says they were very selective about who was allowed to participate. People had to apply and there were no government bureaucrats allowed. With the funding, they were able to pay travel expenses for those who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend.

Some 250 people participated in the conference in Georgetown. “It was fascinating to see how energized people were when they came together,” says MacNeill. The conference was a great success and several positive initiatives have resulted from the conference, he says.

Dr. Judith Kulig, a professor of health studies at the University of Lethbridge found some common elements that helped small towns cope with natural disasters. Communities that were better able to weather a natural disaster had a positive attitude and a willingness to work together across different ethnicities and religions. They also had a sense of belonging, good communication, and strong volunteerism and leadership. However, the trick is that these things need to be in place before the disaster hits.

Clergy can be an important resource for a town dealing with a natural disaster or other problem, says Dr. Cam Harder who established the Centre for Rural Community Leadership and Ministry (CiRCLe M) at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. The centre hosts an annual conference and provides training, mentoring and resources to help rural clergy of all denominations better serve their rural congregations and contribute to the development of healthy communities.

“Clergy can help people by forging strong social bonds, by improving communication, and by offering free counselling and rituals that help people look forward with hope,” Harder says.

There’s also a need for leadership development and capacity building in rural organizations, says Rob Black, chief executive officer of the Rural Ontario Institute (ROI) in Guelph. “There are a lot of organizations doing good things, but the members are getting older. We need to find ways to engage younger members and rebuild and reinvigorate the leadership,” Black says. Black works to strengthen rural organizations by helping them with succession planning, leadership development and board governance.

Some rural organizations may need to consider amalgamating, says Black. “You need to be open to change, to doing things differently,” he says. “It’s a mindset, and the words you use can make a difference.” Black prefers the term amalgamation over merger. “Merger sounds like a takeover, but amalgamation sounds more co-operative.”

Black knows about the pains of amalgamating two organizations. The ROI was formed five years ago from an amalgamation of two organizations: the Centre for Rural Leadership and the Ontario Rural Council. “It can be tricky when you have two boards, two staffs, etc. but if we don’t change, maybe none will survive,” he points out.

Community building can also happen on a more informal scale. Coming together around a humanitarian project can be a good way to build community, says Glen Whetter, a minister at the Fellowship Community Church in Goodlands, tucked away in the southwest corner of Manitoba.

Whetter was involved in an auction fundraiser organized jointly by several churches of different denominations which raised $16,000 for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

Individuals can make a difference too. In addition to being a minister, Whetter is also a cattle farmer and together with his wife, Erma, they host a post-harvest potluck. “People are very appreciative of the opportunity to meet their neighbours,” Whetter says. “Farms are bigger, people are more spread out and they travel more. People are so busy they don’t have much chance to get together.”

This article was originally published as ‘Bring them back home’ in the May/June 2015 issue of Country Guide

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