Rural assemblies – A letter from New Brunswick’s future #4

Written by Abram Lutes on June 28, 2019


Sugarloaf Provincial Park, Campbellton. Photo from Images of New Brunswick.

June 28, 2040 (Campbellton, NB)

Dear New Brunswickers,

The year is 2040, the province is New Brunswick, and the place is Campbellton. Farmers and workers, fishers and loggers, and small producers and rural people from across the province have gathered for the tenth bi-annual New Brunswick Grand Rural Assembly. Crowds fill the Riverside Park, as delegates from dozens of local assemblies from both French and English communities mill around. We’ve organized assemblies over the last two decades to respond to dramatic changes in New Brunswick.

The banners are colorful, all purples and greens and golds and blues. The labor unions and the farmers’ unions and fishers’ unions and logging cooperatives and the neighborhood organizations are out in force. It is hard to imagine that only twenty years before, Campbellton was known for economic decline, hard times, and a high suicide rate. Now, the town near the Quebec border is a model for rural economic and social development, is remarkable for its food self-sufficiency, and is famous for its excellent health and senior care, high levels of literacy, and its education.

Campbellton is one of many towns in New Brunswick and across the country that have experienced a social renaissance over the last few decades. Years of frustration with top-down bureaucrats, with centralization to urban areas, with civil-society groups run out of faraway cities, and with environmentally destructive resource extraction, all boiled over into grassroots, popular, and democratic movement in rural New Brunswick.

At first, twenty years ago, the protests were disorganized. They had little to do with big ideas like “sustainability” and “rural revitalization,” and the protests, somewhat clumsily, expressed their ideas. Later, the language changed, intersectional analysis abounded, and rural people began to draw connections between rural and urban poverty, between racialized violence in the city and environmental violence and colonialism in rural areas. Tired of the “wait-and-see” promises of parliamentary parties on the centre and the left and the right, people took things into their own hands. Rural assemblies were central to this change.

Rural assemblies, of course, didn’t begin in New Brunswick. They began with other social movements in other places. There was the anti-austerity farmers movement in Greece, the Gillets Jaunes in France, the communal councils in Venezuela, and the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil. Like the New Brunswick’s Rural Assemblies, each attracted comparisons to older forms of local democracy. Some made comparisons the local town meetings of New England, where farmers and townsfolk deliberated and found a consensus on local governance. Others thought of the Athenian forum, where the citizen class as a whole would govern the city. The best example was the comparison to Tommy Douglas’s Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which shook the wheat farms of Saskatchewan last century and which helped bring universal health care to all Canadians.

The truth is that the rural assemblies were all this, and more. They were a political and organizational unit which arose out of the conditions facing rural people in the third decade of the twenty-first century. The climate catastrophe was worsening, decades of austerity and free trade agreements had left a province impoverished, and indifferent governments were committed to urban-focused visions of progress. The rural assemblies brought together people—workers, and farmers, small producers and young people, unemployed people and pensioners—to craft demands that spoke to their desire for rural towns like Woodstock and Belledune, Campbellton and Edmunston, Saint Andrews and Saint Stephen, and, as importantly, the rural hinterlands of the province.

The model was simple. Within each community, citizens assembled together in a public space—a park, a civic centre, an arena, a parking lot—and organized community action and demanded governments pay attention. In places without a central hub, people formed their own assemblies. Executive committees were struck between gatherings and worked to carry out what the assemblies had decided. As the model spread across the country, New Brunswickers took the initiative and hosted the first Grand Rural Assembly which brought together social movements from across the province, the Maritimes, and the country to share strategies and techniques and to build campaigns.

The rural assemblies organized protests, and in one memorable action they demanded unilateral withdrawal from the disastrous USMCA Free Trade Agreement and the creation of a Farming Board. The Rural Assemblies blocked major highways with manure and trees—a trick they had learned from their French and Greek comrades resisting EU austerity. They organized farming communities, which drew on farming models developed by early Acadian-Mi’kmaq settlements. Farmland was no longer managed as individual private property, and productive plots became part of an ecological and communal whole, redistributed annually based on the needs of the community and consensus among farmers. Assemblies used digital media and robotics and traditional knowledge and permaculture.

The Rural Assemblies also took initiatives to ensure that social services were available and appropriate for rural areas. They organized teams of community volunteers to pave roads and transport the elderly and impaired to their doctors’ appointments, the basis of what would become the rural community public works program. They invited researchers and students to come stay in small towns and on community farms to exchange expertise, which became the rural practicum program that became part of the curriculum  at the University of New Brunswick, Saint Thomas University, and Mount Allison University.

Uncomfortable with local democracy, politicians first derided Rural Assemblies as ‘hillbilly fanatics,’ as tinged with old-fashioned, uneconomic, unrealistic, and anti-development ideas. But eventually the government had to concede the Rural Assemblies were a legitimate, representative force. Federal and Provincial Commissions were struck and became liaisons between policymakers and the Rural Assemblies.  

The Rural Assemblies precipitated a sea change in New Brunswick and Canadian politics, not just in policy, which shifted from neoliberalism and free trade, towards public-led development and mutual assistance, but in the very way in which political decisions were made. Across the country, student, tenant, and worker associations in the cities began to model themselves as Citizen Assemblies, based on New Brunswick’s Rural Assemblies. Rural people did as well. Popular will was not tempered by intermediaries like political parties and appointed experts. Instead these instruments were subservient to directly democratic bodies and had to answer to them.

It is in this Grand Rural Assembly in Campbellton, where we, along with representatives of Indigenous nations, are proposing a “good living” clause in the constitution, which would guarantee every Canadian the right to clean air, water, and a healthy environment. A young woman from the north shore Emilie, reads the proposal to the Assembly. She is one of thousands of workers and farmers and rural people who now speak for themselves and represent their own communities in the creation of national policy.

Sincerely,

Abram Lutes

Abram Lutes is an environmental action reporter with the RAVEN project Summer Institute and a member of the NB Media Co-op Board of Directors

In the optimistic spirit of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Message from the Future, this letter is a speculative and fictional look back from the future to imagine what New Brunswick could be like if we could meet our climate change obligations. It is fiction, but it need not stay fiction. Each letter offers a vision of what New Brunswick could be like in the future if the province is able to fight climate change and to achieve the IPCC climate goals.

Read the other Letters from New Brunswick’s Future here.

This series is sponsored by RAVEN, and edited by Daniel Tubb and Abram Lutes. Daniel is an environmental anthropologist at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton and a co-investigator with RAVEN. If you would like to contribute your own letter, read the Call for Letters from New Brunswick’s Future and send a short outline of your idea to Daniel Tubb at dtubb@unb.ca and Abram Lutes at abram.lutes@gmail.com.

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