Don Mills advocates economic policy centred on urban areas in Atlantic Canada
Don Mills says people need to change the way they think about rural economic development. For starters, he says, think about the fact that rural economic development just isn’t going to happen.
Mills, the CEO of Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates, is giving a speech today to the
St. John’s Board of Trade, as part of a message he’s been delivering across Atlantic Canada.
He said he’ll be talking about a whole raft of political and economic trends he’s seeing from CRA’s polling data, but he sat down with The Telegram to give a preview on one of the key themes.
“We need to change the conversation,” Mills said.
“We need to stop the lie that we can find employment for people living in rural areas,” Mills said.
He said there’s definitely a rural-urban economic divide in Atlantic Canada, but it goes beyond the big cities like St. John’s and Halifax.
“There are big swaths of the province that are not participating in that prosperity, and you see it in our numbers.
“You see it in the consumer confidence numbers that we’re tracking. You see it in numbers related to whether people feel this is a ‘have’ or a ‘have not’ province,” he said. “What we can do is provide economic centres where we can provide jobs.”
Mills said Statistics Canada defines an urban area as any community of more than 5,000 people, and that’s what people should be thinking about, too.
“They have enough amenities to be sort of self-reliant to some extent, but they can also form the centre of what I would call an ‘economic zone,’” he said. “In Atlantic Canada we tend to think about urban areas as mainly the cities, but there are other, smaller, urban areas. We have to think about them as urban areas — self-contained, good economic units.”
The fact of the matter, Mills said, is that year-round jobs and economic development in true rural areas just isn’t possible.
Instead, people need to embrace the concept of regional centres, and a possibility that they are going to have to commute.
He has a map that shows
75-kilometre circles around towns like Marystown, Gander, Deer Lake, and Clarenville.
“There’s a reason why there's 200,000 Chinese moving every week to the cities in China. It’s because that’s where the economic opportunity is,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that people move, but I do suggest that we have to think about where we get our services and where we get our jobs, and we have to be able to be prepared to commute some reasonable distance to take advantage of those opportunities.”
At its core, he said, is the fact that economic activity just doesn’t happen in rural areas in the same way, and with large numbers of people living in rural Newfoundland, it’s a major drag on the economy.
“There’s not the critical mass,” he said. “There’s no reason for the economy to be there. This is the reality of today’s world. That’s why in Canada we have 19 per cent of people living in rural parts of the country. In Newfoundland we have 41 per cent.”