« Comme toutes les nouvelles désagréables, nous avons souvent préféré ne pas les envisager avant d’avoir les faits devant nous » (p. 87). In the past others may have turned a blind eye or wore rose-coloured glasses when envisaging the future of Canada’s outlying regions. No one can accuse the authors of this paper of glossing over the frightening realities that many remote communities now face. This clearly reasoned and thoroughly documented study provides a compelling analysis of the recent economic path of Canada’s eastern outlying regions and a realistic prognosis of its broad pattern of development in the first decades of a new century. The Abstract is a model statement: concise, unvarnished, highly informative. The volume’s cartography and graphics are of superior quality, but there is no index.
The core of Polèse and Shearmur’s analysis is an in-depth study of twelve peripheral subregions, six in Québec, three in New Brunswick, and one in each of the other Atlantic Provinces. Customized Census data (1971-1996) are combined with information from interviews and focus group meetings in each subregion to produce a profile of trends, opportunities and challenges characteristic of peripheral Canada in an era of a knowledge-based economy. The performance of the study region is contextualized within a summary overview of peripheral Canada as a whole (defined as beyond one hour’s driving time from a metropolitan area of 500 000 inhabitants) and by attention to the experience of comparable subregions in Western Europe.
The authors squarely face the fact that a knowledge-based economy is primarily metropolitan; that technologies that can overcome the isolation of outlying regions also increase centripetal forces; that economies of scale in production and transportation still matter; and that in many critical, practical ways distance will always be a barrier. A lot of what can be accomplished in Montréal could never be accomplished in Moncton, let alone even Gaspé. Dreams of top-down parachuted prosperity were and are just that: even locating universities in remote regions does not guarantee significant stimulative effects. Serious thinking about the future of largely resource-dependent regions needs to begin with the realities of shrinking resources and a demographic decline. This does not mean that the overall future of outlying communities is bleak. What it does mean is that local disadvantages (including the high-wage economy of some resource processing centres) need to be recognized for what they are and that policies need to focus on maximizing support for local entrepreneurship.
The authors limit their attacks on policy prescription, but they make a number of constructive suggestions that would require governments to frame initiatives that recognize the geographical uniqueness of challenges in outlying regions. These include holding onto a trained workforce and avoiding the negative employment effects overly generous social programs create. Even getting regional policies right will not immediately solve the harsh local questions with which the book begins, such as how to respond to the closure of the Murdochville smelter, but it would be an encouraging start.