Taking care of ourselves used to be easier, why?


Break is over and the kids are back at school. Meanwhile Daylight Savings has sprung forward and I’ve lost an hour that turned into an all night work session leaving me very tired this morning. And to top it off, it’s been the most glorious, sunny day of the new year.

It was so nice we took the baby out in her stroller, though she’s suffering from a cold. We worry about these things as parents, and dial it up when one of our boys tells us there’s been a case of whooping cough in their school. Did our baby pick that up? Kids are constant worry that doesn’t let up even when they’re out on their own.

We took the baby to the hospital a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t for her. Sharon needed some minor tests. While she was inside I paced up and down the hallways with the baby for nearly an hour.

The walls are lined with old photographs of the doctors and nurses who used to work there and at the earlier Chipman Hospital. It was the old one torn down to make way for the lovely, riverside Granville Park, which was recently sold to developers who put up that giant vinyl-clad condo project I keep complaining about. But I digress.

At the end of one hallway there was a large photomontage of all the registered nurses who’d graduated from the local hospital. I recognized one of the nurses in the photos. She was a friend’s mother. As I stared at the antique faces it occurred to me that there were no nurses schooled and trained here in the local hospital. There are now nursing schools for that. I correctly assumed that the nearest one would be at the university Fredericton. Training, like everything else, has been professionalized and centralized. Knowledge, technology and management have replaced caring, learning and cooperating.

But the Town of St. Stephen isn’t the same place it used to be either. A century ago it was a thriving manufacturing centre and its highway was the St. Croix River. It’s primary trading partners were the neighbouring towns on both sides of the Canadian-American border. It has been more than 50 years since the last of the manufacturing jobs were sent offshore where the wages were cheaper. The only place left is the Ganong candy factory.

Today St. Stephen, like most other small towns, is a service centre. That means there are government offices, a handful of struggling family-owned retail stores and three or four big box stores run by head offices in Toronto or somewhere even bigger. All of the banks are centrally managed. Even the government offices, not to mention the hospitals, are centrally managed. And tourism and welfare cheques have replaced the lost manufacturing jobs.

So what have we lost in the exchange besides production jobs? In a phrase: our local self-reliance. Instead of community leaders we now have branch managers who can’t quite make their own decisions. Instead of well-paid, industrious workers, we have more unmotivated, low-paid part-time workers who are forced to resort to seasonal unemployment “benefits.” And the income gap between the wealthy and the working poor has widened, as we have all heard by now.

As these gaps continue to widen, jobs become more seasonal and low-end wages drop further, citizens (you and I) turn into desperate servants rather than dignified workers. And as outsiders and foreigners come in to manage these service businesses local mythologies are ignored, misunderstood and ultimately distorted and forgotten as the business culture becomes Disneyfied into caricature.

Everything becomes tourism (from our shopping “experience” to entertainment) as production and even innovation continues to be off-shored. A subculture of resentment emerges resulting in vandalism, disrespect, drug use and crime, affecting tourism itself. The end state, as documentarian Michael Moore points out, is Flint, Michigan. Not exactly the tourist mecca of the New World.

Of course it’s not that bad in our quiet corner of New Brunswick. It’s still livable here. But one can feel and see the loss of pride in our communities. And even enduring landmarks like the Algonquin Hotel in St. Andrews show the loss of pride and signs of decline from decades of centralized management.

Perhaps even more damaging than the loss of pride is the loss of trust as our society becomes more unequal. So how might we return to a more intimate, trust-based society?

We might begin by introducing the idea of decentralization into our political decision-making. And control of our local energy systems is the first step, whether these are small hydro-electric dams, solar arrays, windmills or tidal turbines. One way of actually doing this might be forming local-regional energy cooperatives, like credit unions, whereby local citizens can again become both producers and customers of their own products.

But energy self-reliance, as much as food self-reliance, has become a dangerous notion. Powerful centralized forces and their legions of employees, both public and private, see self-reliance as a threat to their existence. As it should be.

Our regional resources and our regional citizenship belong to us and not to some distant head office.


  1. So many similarities with what's happened in parts of my state. Up until the 1990s, North Carolina had a thriving textile industry in the middle of the state. By 2000, that industry was no more, shipped overseas.

    We have lost so much more than jobs and your post lays that out very clearly. Can we decentralize? Does the majority even consider it to be a necessity? I don't know the answer. We don't seem to be even having the discussion in my state.

  2. The majority is focused on jobs. The government wants to keep them happy. They want jobs, too. The corporations have the jobs. Everyone concludes: we need to keep the corporations happy to keep our jobs.

    Corporations don't like decentralization because it reduces their control over profits. Governments don't like decentralization because it reduces their power. The media certainly don't want decentralization.

    So the people never hear the case for self-sufficiency.


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