Saturday, 25 February 2017

Rural PEI Demise Challenging but Can Be Understood

I was pleased to be asked to speak at a rally for Rural PEI on Islander Day. And remember it's for speaking rather than reading so it may seem a little awkward....

We all know why we’re here….. my feelings about Belfast school are no different than yours…. My son went there in those critical early school years where our kids have that one chance to become curious.. and engaged… make friends… feel part of something bigger than themselves… I saw cos do all of those things and was grateful… to the teachers and everyone else he interacted with at Belfast elementary… and it wasn’t until he went to the much bigger high school in montague that I realized how the size of classes.. the close interaction of teachers and students.. teachers and parents.. the security that comes from being in a community where everyone knows your name were so important…. Belfast has given him a leg-up.. the success he’s enjoying today.. the pleasure he gets from solving problems… working and accomplishing things in a group…. had their origins at Belfast elementary.. I want to make sure that many many more children have that same opportunity.. that’s why I want these smaller schools to stay open…..

And yes there is over crowding in some urban schools that needs to be fixed… zoning will accomplish some of that… but taking away the opportunity for community based education at the elementary level… making primary education for some rural children worse to solve a problem for other children…. Is not fair… it’s no solution….

So what’s going on here….

I spent most of my professional career at cbc .. and as a belfast resident… watching with alarm the hollowing out of rural pei…… and there are obviously strong linkages between why rural communities have been in decline… and now what follows from that… the accountant’s case that the government can no longer afford to keep these small school’s open…. And the education department’s argument that students will be better off bussed to bigger schools outside the community….

Our farmers and fishermen are facing powerful economic forces… from free trade deals internationally… to consolidation in the food wholsale and retail business… many fewer buyers than there were 15 years ago… we as consumers have benefited from all of this.. … But primary producers have not…. these economic forces send a message to farmers… get bigger to compete.. or get out.. and that’s just what happened… we’ve seen farm numbers decrease from around 3000 farms in the mid’80’s… to half that now….

But here’s the thing…. our provincial governments from angus maclean through jim lee.. joe ghiz…. pat binns and yes Robert ghiz and wade maclaughlin have been at their best in my opinion… when they help farmers and fishermen work against these powerful economic forces…. this trend of get big or get out… the lands protection act does this…. the beef plant is a good example… political support for supply management and the success of adl… support for plants owned by fishermen in tignish and the Evangeline… the easy thing is to give in to those economic forces . let deep pocketed corporations run things… but our best politicians over the years have shown courage.. and yes risked provincial dollars…. To keep these industries in community control…. And we need that kind of courage and commitment now when it comes to keeping our schools open….

Now we… the rest of us.. we have to do our part too… look I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to school board elections.. my son grew up left home…. And I let election after election slip by without paying any attention… and the control of our schools slipped away… that’s on us.. and we need a new governance model that keeps not just school age parents involved… but all community members interested in education….

And we have more work to do… a lot of which has begun already…. to try to make use of empty classrooms until school age numbers increase again which they will…

I’ve seen first hand what a community based development corporation can do in Belfast to supply goods and services that otherwise wouldn’t be there… it takes commitment.. and lots of volunteer time and effort…. We in belfast and all other communities are prepared to take on that challenge…. It could lead to community development opportunities…. Even to generate some income… at local schools to help with the redistribution of resources the department says it needs….

We will do that work.. you have our full attention… the work has already begun… but premier mclauchlan we need something from you…. Time… this can’t be done in weeks or a couple of months…. We need a moratorium on school closures.. for at least another year….. it will also give the education department a chance to get up to date on the impact of re-zoning and real bussing costs…. your education department has an obligation to get this information…. we have the right to do more than just comment on what’s already been decided…. we’re ready to do that work….

Premier mclauchlan… I went to the Georgetown conference in the fall of 2013.. the one you chaired…... and I didn’t hear anyone suggest that closing rural schools.. bussing young kids to bigger ones miles down the road..… would help with community development…. We know if these schools close… they’ll never open again…. Don’t let this happen on your watch…… give us a chance to make these small communities a welcoming place for new families… not a place to avoid because there’s no local school….

It’s interesting that when pei wants to show off what’s it’s most proud of… what it wants others to think about… we don’t use a picture of the Wal-Mart in Charlottetown.. or the royal bank building…. It’s cultivated fields… fishing harbours….. cattle grazing in fields….. but behind these shots are the people who shape the landscape with their work… take risks on the open water… or the frozen bays to harvest oysters and mussels in the winter…. People who have chosen a life not many do these days… we should celebrate them… thank them… these are the people who will drive the exports you’re looking for premier mclaughln… invest the money… do the hard work…. But they deserve to be seen as more than just workers or entrepreneurs…. They have families and communities around them.. that’s what sustains and maintains their committment…. and schools are at the heart of these communities… Don’t do anything that would take away that opportunity to give their children the best start to their lives… the kind of opportunity my son had at belfast….

is keeping these schools open the hard choice??? it shouldn’t be but apparently it is…. is counting on community development in the future risky??? yes… but premier mclauchlan… it’s the right thing to do…..

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