Listen up, Ottawa!

In yesterday’s “Globe and Mail,” columnist Judith Maxwell wrote a thought-provoking piece ahead of a series of Ottawa’s first ministers’ meetings. At those meetings, which are known to cost taxpayers’ loads of money, Maxwell suggests ministers could listen to all of their business leaders for a change. More specifically, Ottawa should listen both to big-shot business leaders and to the small communities, whose voices often get overshadowed by economic events occurring in Canada’s urban centers.

Approximately 4.6 million Canadians live outside major urban centers and those numbers keep on dwindling, as younger generations keeps on migrating to the cities in search of jobs and better social and economic standing. As a result, public infrastructure in small towns and rural areas keeps on shrinking. Judith Maxwell writes, “So, when the local mill or factory closes down in these sparsely populated areas, the community is hit by a deep sense of foreboding.”

Whenever issues of small communities are brought forward, Ottawa always has a ready answer: the government has spent millions on “training and adjustment programs.” However, when these programs are evaluated independently, the results are mixed at best. At their worst, the promised training and counseling nearly always miss the target, prompting the need for new ways and means of renewing economic activity in affected areas.

Independent empirical studies have already cleared the path, demonstrating that local leaders should have more access to the government ear, as well as the coffers. Also, whatever training, counseling and money may come their way, it should build on local assets and resources and stop trying to reinvent the wheel.

Supporting the latter is Ray Ivany, former president of the Nova Scotia Community College, who said that, “Most adults seriously underestimate what they know and can do. With mastery and familiarity comes a kind of forgetting, taking for granted even very advanced skills and knowledge. [But] what prior learning does is enable people to overcome their sense of being ‘know-nothings’ and their terror of going back to school.”

One illustration of this principle was a study done by Dalhousie University, whereby employees of a closed fishing plant in Halifax were asked to document their existing skills in order for the researchers to identify the missing knowledge and skills components necessary to re-qualify them for work on the supply ships servicing offshore oil and gas rigs.

Judith Maxwell ends her analysis on a hopeful note. Although a number of Canadian industries have lost their comparative advantage on the international trade scene, and although it has cost the country even more communities, not all hope is lost. As long as the country nurtures its local leaders, fosters a strong relationship with the federal government’s social programs and initiatives, as well as recognizes assets and resources already present, almost any defeat could be turned into a success story.