By Natalie Slawinski
Finding a viable future for rural Newfoundland and Labrador presents a number of challenges to policy-makers, not the least of which are the province’s geography and demography.
Newfoundland and Labrador has hundreds of geographically dispersed and remote communities, many with small and declining populations. Finding a way forward requires community leadership, creativity and courage, and requires community members to work together to find specific solutions to the issues they face. One way to enable such leadership is for government to effectively support social enterprises in rural communities. These enterprises have the potential to empower community members and to help build sustainable local capacity.
Social enterprises are not new to Newfoundland and Labrador. Co-operatives, for example, are a form of social enterprise and have existed in the province for over a century. The term “social enterprise,” however, has gained popularity over the last decade. Signalling the importance of these enterprises for Canada, the federal government recently defined them as organizations that seek “to achieve social, cultural or environmental aims through the sale of goods and services.” Whether non-profit or for-profit, the majority of surpluses or profits must flow to the social goals of the organization rather than to its shareholders and owners. When done well, these organizations can bring employment, resources and an enhanced sense of pride to rural communities.
A growing number of social enterprises in Newfoundland and Labrador are helping to bring hope and opportunity to rural areas. For example, Rising Tide Theatre Company has helped to revitalize Trinity and surrounding communities; the Shorefast Foundation is working to bring new opportunities to Fogo Island and unique ways of thinking about rural economic development that is respectful of nature and culture; the Battle Harbour Historic Trust has preserved the resettled fishing village of Battle Harbour, Labrador, by creating a tourism venture; and a group of students at Memorial University, Enactus Memorial, has been working on numerous social enterprise projects across the province and beyond. The group’s latest venture is bringing hydroponics to remote locations in Labrador and across Canada, enabling communities to grow their own food.
These Newfoundland and Labrador enterprises share a number of characteristics. First, each was started by individuals who were not from the community or who returned to the community after time spent away. Second, these social enterprises have helped build capacity and leadership in their communities.
Finally, all of these organizations have been recognized locally and in some cases globally for their positive impact on people and/or the natural environment.
A growing number of social enterprises in Newfoundland and Labrador are helping to bring hope and opportunity to rural areas.
Despite the potential for social enterprises to help revitalize communities, rural Newfoundland and Labrador presents several obstacles. For instance, rural communities struggle to access key resources often taken for granted in urban areas. Such resources include a skilled and educated workforce, training opportunities, and standard business infrastructure and ecosystems such as transportation networks, telecommunications, the internet, banks, professional advisers and social networks. Perhaps the most challenging obstacles are the feelings of hopelessness and fear that accompany population decline and such cultural barriers as a negative perception of business.
Despite the challenges, rural Newfoundland and Labrador communities also possess assets that larger centres often lack, including less congestion, unspoiled nature and unique traditions. Perhaps the most valuable asset is local knowledge — knowledge that can only be obtained by living and working within the community. Communities that leverage their unique place-based assets and knowledge to create new opportunities can benefit greatly from social enterprise. The challenge is bringing communities together in a way that encourages collaboration. The key is to empower communities to discover their internal leadership potential and to find their own path forward.
Social enterprises are ideally suited to rural places because they are attentive to local needs and assets.
Proponents of social enterprise could learn from the experiences of Memorial University’s Extension Service between 1959 and 1991. Extension fieldworkers lived in rural communities and helped residents develop skills, talent and leadership. They were encouraged to experiment with creative approaches to community development. A well-known example was the Fogo Process, a partnership between MUN’s Extension Service and the National Film Board of Canada, which helped Fogo Islanders find a way forward in the face of pressures to resettle. The Fogo Process helped spawn the Fogo Island Co-op, which continues to contribute to the local economy to this day.
Past regional development initiatives in this province have had mixed success. While not a silver-bullet solution, social enterprise represents a promising approach to tackling some of the challenges faced by rural places, helping to bring enhanced resources, leadership and pride to communities. The Department of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation has recognized the importance of these enterprises for the province’s rural economic development. For social enterprise to be effective in rural communities, the government needs to act as a facilitator, break down barriers to success and ultimately provide communities with the support needed to enable them to forge their own destiny. If supported in this way, social enterprise can take hold and be a catalyst for rural renewal throughout Newfoundland and Labrador.
About the Author
Natalie Slawinski (Business Administration, Memorial University of Newfoundland) received her PhD from the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario. Her research lies at the intersection of business and sustainable development, and has been published in journals such as Organization Science, Journal of Business Ethics, and Organization Studies. This article is an excerpt from “The Democracy Cookbook: Recipes to Renew Governance in Newfoundland and Labrador” (ISER Books, 2017).