08/13/2011 05:15 EDT | Updated 10/13/2011 05:12 EDT

Small, Rural Canadian Towns Fight For Survival


MONTREAL - Small Canadian towns are painfully aware of the existential predicament they face. Few are strangers to the sobering realities of declining and aging populations, young people fleeing to cities, difficulty maintaining infrastructure, and sky-high unemployment.

Some are fighting back.

They're aware of the odds stacked against them. The rural population fell to below 20 percent of the national average for the first time in the last census and, while semi-rural areas are generally faring well, the most remote parts of the country are suffering the steepest declines.

"If they're beyond easy commuting distance of a big city, overall most small communities are shrinking," said Bill Reimer, a Concordia University professor and director of the New Rural Economy project, which has been monitoring Canadian small towns for more than a decade.

"Unless they are near an urban centre or a fabulous natural amenity like a mountain, many are in trouble."

Although the prospects for survival seem bleak, residents of some small towns are working to reverse the trend, drawing both on creative ideas and on the good old-fashioned community spirit that tiny towns are known for.

The challenge is most acute in the smallest places. In Quebec, for example, over 80 percent of the towns on a list of so-called "devitalized" municipalities had a population of 800 people or less.

A declining population means that many municipalities scramble to maintain even basic services for residents. This includes not only roads, sewers and schools but also the least obvious things, like keeping a grocery store or gas station open.

One town — described by its mayor as a place with "no industry, no services" — is working to create the quintessential one-stop shop.

Residents of the small Quebec village of Notre-Dame-de-Ham have begun a citizens' co-operative to start a combined convenience store/gas station/restaurant — a huge difference-maker in a town where residents must make a 25-km round trip to buy milk.

So far, they have 97 members who have contributed $35,000. That means nearly one-quarter of the town's 440 overall residents have participated.

Reimer said a town's capacity to survive generally depends on the talents and efforts of its people.

He cites the example of Warner, Alberta — population, 383 — which managed, with one crumbling arena and a good local coach, to start an all-girls hockey school which has become nationally renowned.

"It's all about finding your niche," he said.

It's happening in a small Quebec community with a great micro-climate for lilacs, called Cap-a-l'Aigle, and in northern Ontario's Elliot Lake, which successfully transformed itself from a mining town in decline into a retirement community.

The town of Springhill, N.S., even managed to turn disaster into opportunity. The site of one of Canada's biggest mining disasters, the town now uses the hot water gathering in the old mine shafts as a geothermal energy source.

St-Gabriel-Lalemont, an 800-person community about two hours northeast of Quebec City, is pinning its hopes on becoming one of the province’s apple capitals.

Two years ago, the town launched a plan titled, "Flowers, apple trees and orchards," which involved planting hundreds of flowers and decorative apple trees on the town's lawns and gardens. It also planted seven apple orchards for commercial production, some of which contain species of trees that aren’t grown anywhere else in Quebec.

Residents are hoping that the project will bring jobs to the town — in planting, harvesting and selling the apples, along with processing them into jams, jellies, and syrups and, eventually, in serving the tourists they hope to attract.

The survival plans of small towns like St-Gabriel and Notre-Dame-de-Ham rely on being able to mobilize large percentages of their citizens.

According to Maude Pichereau, the development co-ordinator for St-Gabriel, over two-thirds of the town's households bought decorative apple trees, which were planted by teams of community volunteers.

However, a town is not saved by good ideas and hard work alone.

Projects like these also require money — something small towns have in short supply. The total cost of the St-Gabriel-Lalement apple project is estimated at $163,000 — not an amount the residents could raise on their own.

Similarly, the $35,000 raised by the residents of Notre-Dame-de-Ham, impressive as it might be, is not enough to cover even a fraction of the cost of launching the business they hope tp build.

Both of these towns are depending on a mix of private sponsorship, volunteers, municipal funding, and provincial subsidies.

In Quebec, the 2008 action plan to help devitalized municipalities includes development grants for small communities, as well as help with maintaining infrastructure, schools, and basic services.

According to Reimer, this is all part of the new government mentality towards small-town development.

"The idea used to be that you had to go 'chasing smokestacks' — trying to attract that big lumber producer or factory to your town," he explained. "But eventually everyone realized that these big, foreign-owned and highly automated companies didn't provide many jobs or really do much for the towns."

Today, Reimer says, governments have the opportunity to act more as facilitators — helping small towns like Notre-Dame-de-Ham and St-Gabriel-Lalement help themselves.

Despite the optimism, the outcome is far from certain.

Pichereau has no idea whether St-Gabriel will survive. But at least now, she says, people have hope — "the sense that if we work together, roll up our sleeves, we can do it."

Mayor Diane Lefort of Notre-Dame-de-Ham isn't sure whether her town will survive either.

But she bristles at the suggestion that it's a waste of tax dollars to prop up a town like hers that might be unsustainable. Keeping small towns alive is in everyone's best interest, she says.

"We are the weekend playground for the cities, for all the people who want to get away for fresh air," she says.