(The City of Miramichi was formed in 1995 by the amalgamation of the towns of Chatham and Newcastle, the villages of Douglastown, Loggieville and Nelson-Miramichi, as well as the local service districts of Nordin and Moorefield, a portion of the local service district of Ferry Road-Russellville, and portions of the parishes of Chatham, Glenelg and Nelson.
I was not in favour of the amalgamation and I wrote this article in 1994. It was first published in the Miramichi Leader.)
When I was growing up in Chatham in the '50s, we did all our Christmas shopping on Water Street. On the coldest days, people parked their cars and left their engines running while they dashed about, into one store, out the other. If you got downtown a little late, you couldn't find a parking space. Christmas carols played from a loudspeaker outside Scott's Drugstore.
We went into almost every store on Water St. Sometimes we went by our list, sometimes we just started at Henderson St. and worked our way up one side, down the other. I remember each enterprise clearly: Hickey's Drugs, Clare & Mary's, Loggie's parking lot (the Bowser House, earlier), Washburn's Barber Shop, Creaghan's, M & W Groceries, Simpson's order office, Daley's Jewellery, Rubenstein's, Bobby Jacobson's, Annie Rich, Stedman's, Jerry Duplessie's, Vince Brennan's, Flam's, Hachey's.
Then across the street to Aube's, MacDonald's Hardware, the Post Office, the liquor store, Sadler's Dry Goods, MacKendy's, Loggie's Shoes, Loggie's Groceries, the Chinese laundry and Leonard Hachey's Shoe Repair, Scott's Drugs, Loggie's Hardware, Loggie's Ladies' Wear, The Gazette Stationery and Printing, Loggie's Garage.
On Cunard and Duke, there were Sophie & Janie's, Lounsbury's, Mrs. Leggatt's Gowns, Mrs. Nash, Milliner.
The idea of going to Douglastown to shop was still many years in the Miramichi's future.
This is nostalgia, of course, but it's also something else. It's an important reminder of what we've left behind as we rush, without calm judgment, toward yet another proposed solution to the Miramichi's economic woes.
With one or two exceptions, all those businesses in downtown Chatham where we used to shop were locally owned by people who had a vested interest in their community. Shoppers knew where their money was going; employees knew who their employer was.
When did we begin to underestimate the importance of that? When did we stop looking at each other and at local resources as the means of building and improving our economy and start looking outward, wondering how to attract companies from away to come in and give us jobs – companies which would then hold us hostage with the threat that is so familiar to Maritime workers: do it our way or we might be forced to pull out and set up shop somewhere else?
It seems to me profoundly ironic that the Miramichi is embarking on amalgamation at the same time as much larger centres are discovering that, as efficient units, it is neighbourhoods and small communities of people that work best.
Mothers know that; in some communities, mothers are organizing with their neighbours, recognizing that a Neighbourhood Watch sign in the window is only part of providing a safe, secure environment for their children.
Environmentalists know that people working together in a neighbourhood are much more successful in setting up programs of reducing, reusing, recycling than a remote authority whose major concerns are landfills and incinerators.
In Halifax – and even in New York – community policing has been seen to work best, both for the police and for the community. People enjoy getting to know their officers as human beings and officers can do their jobs better when they understand the community and know the people who live there.
At a time when so many Canadians are feeling too far removed from the decision-making processes that control their daily lives, is it appropriate to take local government and put it even farther out of reach? At a time when both senior levels of government have made a fetish of deficit-cutting while talking "reform", have solutions other than amalgamation been considered?
In many jurisdictions, the most vital economic ventures are being generated by groups of people who form co-ops – housing co-ops, workers' co-ops, producers' and processors' co-ops (in agriculture and the fishery), retail co-ops – many of them financed through membership in credit unions (which, of course, reinvest in the community rather than transferring Maritime money out of the region as our other financial institutions do). What can't be accomplished by one person alone is often possible through co-operation.
These ideas are not new. And they're radical only because they require a serious change in attitude. They have worked wonders in other parts of the world.
One example: Mondragon, an isolated area in northern Spain which was poor and unattractive to outside investors, decided to take control of its own economic life. Inspired by the Antigonish Movement of Fathers Jimmy Tomkins and Moses Coady, it has formed a complex of companies, financial institutions and educational institutions – all based on co-op principles. Today, it has 22,000 employed workers doing billions of dollars in business – manufacturing, cultural, technical, research and more – in a number of small towns and villages.
And just as Mondragon borrowed from Nova Scotia, Father Greg MacLeod, Director of the Tomkins Institute at the University College of Cape Breton, has borrowed and adapted from Mondragon. Through the Institute, he has overseen projects in the Sydney area which have provided long-term meaningful employment to Cape Bretoners – as well as necessary goods and services.
This is only one idea. There are many others.
Such views and potential solutions will, of course, be dismissed as romantic, impractical, regressive. The same words were used 25 years ago about educators – and their supporters – who believed that consolidating schools would have a negative effect on rural communities and on uprooted children.
They were used ten years ago when inshore fishermen – and their supporters – warned that concentrating the power of the fishery in the hands of large corporations which marketed fish as if it were any other commodity, would result in an environmental and economic disaster.
There is no satisfaction for those romantics today seeing dying rural communities, a generation of alienated young people, and no fish.
"The world is changing; we've got to keep up with the times," has become a political/business mantra. Here's one more change: proponents of amalgamation on the Miramichi say that a city will have more clout and will be able to compete with Moncton and Bathurst.
But the Miramichi's competition isn't in Moncton or Bathurst. It's in Mexico and Malaysia and dozens of other destitute Third World countries where, right now, people are doing clerical and accounting work for North American companies and even for hospitals; where, right now, people are working in locked factories for pennies a day, manufacturing goods that will be sold all over this brave new Wal-Mart world.
Denying the history and heritage of 11 distinctive Miramichi communities through amalgamation is not going to change that.
(Sharon Fraser is a writer and broadcaster in Halifax. She is a former editor of the Miramichi Leader.)