Coffee with the Minister

coffee-1.jpgClosing schools is an easy fix: it’s quick, decisive and demonstrates action on a file. The flip side of course is that it’s also unimaginative and shortsighted. I’ve been pondering school closures and hub schools through an economic lens, and I wonder if the Minister of Education will sit down for coffee with the Minister responsible for economic development.

Rural PEI has been neglected and overlooked, the Bell Aliant contract serving as a powerful example of this. Our current approach to job creation tends to focus on incentivizing industry to set up shop, creating a measurable amount of new positions in one shot. It looks good on paper, and a government can state with confidence a set number of jobs created during their mandate. Whether the jobs stay or go is secondary.

The backbone of the economy is small business, and supporting those creative entrepreneurs as they work to get off the ground creates sustainable growth. Signing away rural PEI’s right to high speed internet helped to ensure that those small scale businesses would not be settling outside of our centers since access to reliable internet is imperative for virtually all businesses today. That was a missed opportunity for the population strategy, and a black eye to rural PEI, to say the least.

If the Minister of Economic Development spent some time thinking about school closures, he might think of hub schools as a way of regaining some of that lost potential. He might consider that most schools already have access to high speed internet, a commodity that is sorely lacking in at least 4 of those 5 communities. He might consider that many of these buildings are half empty, and in need of occupants to utilize that space. And, that entrepreneurs in rural PEI have a need for office space with high speed internet to foster their start ups.

The Minister for Education might consider how attracting more young businesses to rural communities would result in more young families moving in with those businesses. And, that those families could have children who are looking for a school.

Over coffee, the Ministers for Education and Economic Development might start to imagine various ways to benefit both portfolios. They might talk about piloting business incubators and mentorship programs in some of these communities where populations are dwindling. We don’t have to look very hard to find common threads between departments. In fact, if the practice was for ministers to consider the impacts of their actions on all the portfolios, we probably wouldn’t see the creation of a new ‘Rural’ ministry. Maybe the Minister should extend the coffee invitation to Health and Wellness, Human and Family services, Transportation, Infrastructure and Energy and have a round table discussion on how decisions can negatively impact rural PEI instead of trying to push all those issues into another, separate silo. It could be eye opening. Closing schools is certainly one option. But if the Minister of Education has coffee with everyone who holds a portfolio, he won’t think it’s the best option.