Risks of reactionary thinking in the age of austerity
The big yellow machines are already starting to rip into the old biological station buildings in Saint Andrews. It’s the physical end of one era and the beginning of another.
And this new era is not getting off to the best start. The oceans are under catastrophic stress, and the federal government is cutting back on science funding, including the mothballing of the new library at the biological station, and officially stifling the voices of science staff across the country.
If ever there were a time we needed the help of marine scientists and good government environmental protection policies, it would be now. Or better yet, yesterday.
But we’ve also known for quite some time that these things were not going to get better. These are not recent changes in the Canadian government. Since the signing of the Kyoto Accord on climate change Canada has been backing away from a leadership role on the environment front, instead focusing attention on supporting business and resource development, essentially removing environmental hurdles for big business.
And it’s exactly this blending of business interests with environmental protection that caused the problem in the first place. Canada’s government research into advancing aquaculture, engineering fish genetics and improving ocean food productivity has all been conducted at great expense: our attention, both scientifically and politically, has been diverted away from protecting the wild ocean ecosystems. Instead, Canada’s scientists have been working to advance the interests of big business under the guise of “creating” jobs.
What is new is the Save Ocean Science movement in St. Andrews. On Wednesday it’ll be hosting a meeting at the Huntsman Marine Science Centre theatre to discuss the effects of the government cutbacks on the biological station.
There will be a couple of retired scientists speaking, along with a couple of politicians and the town’s mayor, but not surprisingly, no representatives from the biological station or the Huntsman. It promises to be an informative session, and I’d urge you to attend.
But the plain fact is, why wasn’t this campaign started a decade ago when it mattered more?
In the meantime, the Huntsman has turned into an industrial fish science centre blended into a public education facility. Slick PR messages for corporations such as Connor’s Brothers and Paturel lobster grace their new aquarium’s front entry. It’s little wonder that the public is confused, cynical and disengaged.
The town (and region) has had the same predictably reactionary response to its tourism challenges. Seven years ago, in a large public meeting, the town’s leaders and business people were warned that the tourism industry was facing challenges, the most serious of which was business succession and new product development. Instead, the town has been focusing on marketing and promotions.
The sad fact remains that most of St. Andrews’ business owners are aging and that many of the local retail operations are for sale. Our publicly owned hotel has been sold, with no guarantees to the local people. Half of the employees were laid off, ostensibly due to the renovations. That asset is now in the hands of a real estate developer in Halifax, which now controls our signature golf course, our outdoor swimming pool and our small local beach as well as the hotel. That is a huge portion of our local infrastructure, which has been historically controlled to some extent by locals since it was first built.
Foreign ownership should now be as much of a concern in St. Andrews as it is in the rest of Canada, which has by far the highest rate of foreign ownership in the developed world. Asian money, which was, ironically, first brought in under government partnership funding and allowed local speculators collect $50,000 per new investor, is now translating into Asian purchasers of local businesses.
While this may provide a welcome exit strategy for aging retailers, it also promises to permanently alter the culture of this small town. And when it comes to tourism, culture actually matters. Rather than actively marketing to find new, young Canadian buyers for our local businesses, we are willing to accept whatever comes, putting the control of our future into the hands of fate. Somehow, that may not exactly be the wisest community development strategy.
Meanwhile, John and Lucinda Flemer (local philanthropists) have written a letter to the editor of this paper outlining their concerns about the closure of the biological station library. Of course their opinions are valuable, but not any more so than Mr. Smith’s or Mr. Henderson’s, men who worked tirelessly as volunteers to get the new Huntsman aquarium funded and built. Built, yes, but not yet finished.
As I mentioned, product development should be front and centre here. But the parking lot and landscaping around the Huntsman aquarium is a travesty, and one would welcome the assistance of the Flemers, who are directly involved in a landscaping business, to clean up this front door embarrassment to an otherwise wonderful attraction.
Much as I love St. Andrews, it has always been more into preserving its status quo, taking the easy way out and reacting to change, than designing a better future for itself. And in the end, that may prove to be its own undoing.