The Smelter has been a fixture of this community for almost 60 years. It pre-dates the Power Plant, the Sawmill and the Village itself. If we can all think of something that has played such an essential role in our lives for over 50 years, we often think of family members or long-standing family homes.
The Smelter enabled men and women in this region to have successful careers, and support their sons and daughters to pursue lives that were out of reach just one generation before. The wages that the men and women of the Smelter received not only funded their lives but much of the businesses and communities that surrounded it. The current staff made new purchases of homes, vehicles and furniture. And the retirees on their pensions kept communities like ours alive as more and more young people chose to venture out to build their lives somewhere else in different industries.
There are a lot of people passing out blame for the closure. I believe that this exercise is counter-productive to the needs at hand and assigning blame, hating your neighbour or someone you used to consider your friend is neither going to change the past or reopen the Smelter. It is not what we need right now.
What we need right now is vision and decisive leadership. These qualities I am sad to say has been sorely lacking in this community and region for decades. We all knew the Smelter would eventually close down. One of the earliest quotes about the Smelter that I can remember from my childhood was Smelter employees stating that “the smelter could close down tomorrow.”
In 2013 the mines provided most of the feed for the Smelter closed, irreparably damaging the viability of the facility. Yet, we did nothing. Not making any changes, or developing the self-awareness to see that our entire local economy was based on an industrial model that pre-dated free trade and globalization.
Bowater closed in Dalhousie, and we did nothing. The mill in Bathurst closed, we did nothing. The mills in Miramichi closed, we did nothing.
Leadership in this community, the region and the province have taken the strategy of the Ostrich to confront challenges. Bury your heads in the sand and hope everyone else is doing the same.
Why have we not taken the resources that we had, and given ourselves a fighting chance? It is quite simple, a lack of political will.
If you wonder why things have not gotten better, I invite you to look around this room and realize that when hard choices came across this table or the table of any previous council, without fail, the option to take the easy way out was chosen.
Now, in maybe the only good thing to come out of this closure, we may have to come face to face with the demons we have created and have a reckoning.
Wednesday’s announcement and the soon to come economic turmoil our region will encounter is the result of avoiding hard decisions while relying on an artificially maintained economy.
We have devolved from a council into Nurses on the Palliative unit. We take actions to make you comfortable, to a certain extent, we numb you to the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves.
Next year we will maintain the tax base, backstopped by the provincial government. This window of opportunity is all well and good, but ultimately, useless if we lack the will and vision to do something with this grace period that we have.
Right now, we have an opportunity to make a significant difference in the future of our community, our region and our province. It can all start here. It can start tonight.
The province and the federal government will come in over the next several weeks, they will hum and haw, offer platitudes and dole out money the same way they always do. To organizations, initiatives that already exist and that despite a track record of not working to date, they will convince not only the holders of the public purse but the public that we should allow them to keep trying the same thing and expect different results. This behaviour stretches beyond the ostriches I mentioned earlier; this is the exact definition of insanity.
The decisions made over the next few months cannot succeed if done in the traditional method. The provincial government would love to do what they have always done, funnel money down the channels they have always used. Why? Because it is easier than addressing the real issues on the ground.
We have a highly-skilled, yet sadly, unaccredited workforce. Our literacy levels are among the lowest in the country, our ageing population demographics are about to approach crisis levels, and we have a population that draws lines in the sand over language instead of collectively attacking the issues at hand.
It doesn’t matter who sits in what chair, or who gets what money. If the people of this region and the people of Belledune, in particular, cannot put aside their desire for immediate comfort, and insecurity around supporting each other, it won’t matter. People will fight over where a kid lives that might be using the rink, rather than be happy that kids are using the arena.
Decisions around support money like this are made fast and rolled out slowly. We need to focus on the following key priorities and ensure that Belledune plays the lead roll in rolling these programs out:
- Job training and development for the entire region, opportunities in both official languages and located out of Belledune to get the certifications and training our workforce need to be competitive in a global economy
- Economic Stability and DiversificationWorking to ensure tentative projects are completed and
- Existing industries have the infrastructure and support required to stay competitive and grow
- A strategic plan to address the following challenges that will undo any efforts made on the items aboveHow best to serve and mitigate the effects of our ageing demographic, this includesDevelopment of senior-friendly living strategy and infrastructure
- Properly support and encourage the provision of health, wellness and consumer needs.
- Attract investment and human resources to serve these ends
- Training of more home care professionals, and nurses in English, in the region
- Family retention and benefitsChild-care. A childcare strategy must be developed for the Village of Belledune. This strategy may include the allotment of funding to both develop and operate a childcare facility for the region
- Youth and adult activitiesto combat depression, preventable illness and a growing problem with addiction and dependency.
I didn’t grow up in Belledune. But it has always been home. I’ve always wanted the best for it. I have lived across this country and seen how different communities come together in a time of crisis, and make no mistake we are in a time of crisis.
I’ve watched in astonishment as every summer we came to stay in the old Killoran Farmhouse on the Belledune river.
The old house, just like this region, got a little more run down each year. It didn’t mean that we didn’t love it, the creeky windows, the peeling paint, it all felt familiar and safe.
The fear that if we ever decided to make the necessary changes to the place that it somehow wouldn’t feel the same. But Belledune, like my grandfather’s childhood home, has reached a point where either drastic action is needed, or it will become unlivable.
The decision to change is sadly no longer a choice at your feet. As the economy corrects itself to the new reality of a global market and 2019, the change will come fast and without concern or mercy for your resistance to it.
We as a community can either step up to the challenge that has presented itself, shoulder to shoulder with the men and women who have just had their entire lives derailed. We can take substantive steps to not only enact policies and strategies that will help our community in the short term but also ones that will help ensure that blows like these never land this hard again.
We can fulfill our responsibility not just to those generations who built this community but also to the generations to come.
It is my sincere hope that the council dares to act boldly and decisively. And that the people of this community, proud citizens who love their home, get involved.
So I know that this has been a lengthy statement and I apologize to all of you in the audience and my fellow councillors, but I would like to leave you with words from a fighter because that’s who we are, that’s who the men and women who lost their livelihoods last week are, fighters.:
“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you’ve got to be willing to take the hits and not point fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain’t us. that ain’t us.“
Deputy Mayor and Proud Citizen of Belledune