Taking the North Seriously

Posted to Moncton Free Press, February 12, 2012

The recent census statistics underscore the reality of New Brunswick's north: it is a region in decline.

David w. Campbell likes to talk about the plight of the north as an economic policy imperative  - including in his latest column - and the population figures don't lie.

Here in Edmunston, for example, the population dropped almost 500 people. The surrounding county fares no better, so it's not simply a flight to the rural regions. The rest of norther New Brunswick is looking at similar results.

Le Journal Madawaska, the city's French language newspaper, looked at the cause of the decline today. One would expect insight, but as part of the Brunswick News chain the city's major voice echoes with a refrain familiar to readers across the province.

We read about the likelihood of high taxes causing businesses to locate elsewhere. We read about the forestry crisis and the need to ensure a stable supply of wood for the mill. We even read that, since the Université de Moncton opened a campus, people are better educated, and are looking for more challenging opportunities.

Edmunston is sitated at the head of the Saint John River valley, nestled among the rounded hills of the northern Appalachians, on the U.S. border, the norther New brunswick nexus of the national railroad, an attractive location of natural beauty and wildlife combined with what should be sufficient resources for a beautiful, peaceful and prosperous community.

But it only takes one look at the local pulp plant spewing steam and smoke across the city centre to see why people might find this an unattractive place to live and why tourists might want to stay on the highway a few kilometers more.

The surface impression is matched by a similarly unattractive state of affairs behind the scenes.

The local mill receives its product from sawmills at places like Plaster Rock, produces pulp, and ships it across the river to Madawaska, Maine, where it is manufactured into paper.

It is a key part of a declining industry dealing with a shrinking resource base - the foresters have shrunk the New Brunswick wood supply to a new low and are looking to clear more Crown land - and shrinking demand for its product.

It is also the financial sink into which development money headed for the region is thrown. $21 million last year for Twin Rivers (which also owns the Madawaska plant) and the promise of more this year.

Nobody wants to throw the 340 or so people who work for the mill in Canada out of work. But the writing is on the wall, and nobody should be under any illusions.

Pensioners from Fraser Papers (the company that went bankrupt and became Twin Rivers) understand. They blocked the international bridge last April to protest the double-digit percentage cuts to their pensions.

It's not just Madawaska. It's a pattern that characterizes the north. The plants go out of business or go bankrupt. They are purchased by money funds. They get special deals and government funding, and they reopen, for now, until the cycle can begin again, as it will, because it's a declining industry.

More, the attention and the development money and the effort that could go into supporting long-term sustainable industries for the region are drawn into this one sinkhole.

It's time to rethink the forestry industry in this part of the province, and development in the region as a whole.

There's so much more than can be done with wood than to pulp it and ship it across the border. And people don't want to spend their lives working at the plant and living under the smokestack.

And I think the same applies to the north as a whole.

So long as the economy of the north depends on resource extraction, the population will continue to decline. The resource base is shrinking, and pouring money into them is robbing the people of the sort of development that would make their towns and cities more sustainable.

At the very least, governments should begin looking at who is receiving the aid money and what they're doing with it. The continuing exodus demonstrates more clearly than any spreadsheet that the people are not benefitting. The continuing exodus suggests that money is flowing out of the community more rapidly than it is flowing in.

It's time to stop throwing money at the smokestacks, and to start looking to something with a future. We want the people who live in Edmunston, and the entire region, to be successful, to want to stay, and to know that the little things - like their pensions - will be there in the future.


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