In the Circumpolar North, as well as almost everywhere else, rural and small town places are changing. There are changes in local economies, communities, cultures, and environments. Such changes are reflected clearly in our demographics – and especially through population aging and resource frontier aging. How can people in the small rural communities of the periphery best deal with these changes, where one of many questions put forward at the symposium.
Tumbler Ridge was chosen for the symposium because of its history as a resource dependent community, or ‘instant town’, that refused to die after the local corner stone industry, a coal mine, closed in 2001 and close to 1000 workers were laid off. In question of a few months after the bankruptcy the community lost more than two thirds of its population of 5.500 inhabitants, and was facing a severe social and economic crisis.
Local initiative and regional development partnerships
Through a combination of good community leadership, an unshakable belief in the future of the community, stimulation of innovative and entrepreneurial activities in public, private and voluntary sector, diversification of the local economy, and support from external agencies, such as the Community Development Institute at UNBC, Tumbler Ridge did not only survive the crisis, it came strengthened out of it as a community. In many ways, health care and other services provided to senior citizens included, this ‘instant town’ has become a model for others to follow, in Canada as elsewhere in the world. The close and longstanding research and development cooperation between the people of Tumbler Ridge and CDI-UNBC was according to local authorities present at the symposium an important factor for the successful transformation into a more diversified, resilient and self-reliant local community. Because of this extra-local or regional development partnership the participants of the research symposium on aging resource communities were very well received. Representatives from all sectors of the society took part in the planning and organization of the 4 days intense learning experience, including several excursions to important historical and nature sites, such as excavated dinosaur fossils and trackways. We could actually see on site foot-prints of big dinosaurs such as ankylosaurs and theropods dated from 100 and up till 180 million years back in time. A quite fantastic experience, in other words.
From the local to the global, and the involvement of the University of the Arctic
The researchers gathered in Tumbler Ridge came from all over the world. On the participant list you found faculty members of universities in Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, New Zealand, USA and Norway. Central UArctic institutions and networks such as UNBC and Lakehead University in Canada, in addition to UiT/The Arctic University of Norway, including the UArctic Thematic Network on Local and Regional Development, were represented at the recent research and development symposium held in the Rocky Mountains. The high turnout and level of participation of local authorities as well as ordinary people from Tumbler Ridge and nearby communities was perhaps the most positive experience with the research symposium.
“When tested by the closures of the mine, the community turned challenges into opportunity”
Communities are also about economy. The geology that underlies the region has gifted a rich and varied set of resources. Coal has long attracted attention, and the towns past and present coal mines are tied to these ancient products of geological forces. Yet these eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains are also rich with dinosaur fossils and trackways that show that dinosaurs passed over these same lands. Tourism, industry and wilderness recreation have developed through a synergistic and harmonious relationship in the region, and is, according to Greg Halseth, director of the Community Development Institute at UNBC, the main explanation for the successful social and economic change and development process of Tumbler Ridge. On the 5 hours bus ride from Prince George, the home town of UNBC, we got a lot of relevant background information from Greg, our host and guide, about this and other resource dependent communities in northern British Columbia, but also about the beautiful natural scenery and wild life of Peace Valley and the Rocky Mountains we were passing by on our way to Tumbler Ridge.
“My own connection to the area is equally layered and goes back 20 years to when the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) opened. As a small town researcher, my work of course led me to Tumbler Ridge. Over time I have worked with many communities and civic groups on research related to housing, seniors’ needs, care and health services, and community development. The relationship continues with new work on community sustainability as the community works through a changing economy”. When asked about the role of the UArctic Thematic Network on Local and Regional Development Dr. Halseth added that: “this international network gives us as researchers on small towns and rural places an excellent opportunity to connect, meet and compare our research work and finding, for instance, in relation to the issue of aging in resource dependent communities here in northern BC , with studies made in similar places in the Circumpolar North, in northern Norway and Russia. I have benefitted greatly from my participation in different research and development activities organized by the UArctic network, such as the Gargia conference for regional development in the North. A combination of education, research and development work in most of the networks projects and programs, and capacity building through integration of theory and experience based knowledge and competence, are in my opinion important factors for the continuation and success of this international R&D network ”.
The presentations made at the research symposium on ‘Aging Resource Communities’ in Tumbler Ridge in the end of August covered a wide range of issues in relation to the main topic, from health care and social services to business and community involvement of senior citizens in small, rural resource dependent placed in the periphery. The manuscripts will be included in an edited book published later this year by Routledge Studies in Human Geography Series, at the same as the UArctic Thematic Network on Local and Regional Development will release an anniversary e-book about the Gargia conferences 2004-14 simultaneously at the University of Northern British Columbia, the North-Eastern Federal University of Yakutsk, Russia, and UiT/The Arctic University of Norway.