Rural social justice motivates Bonavista’s mayor

Written by Brian Beaton on July 1, 2019

Bonavista Mayor John Norman. Photo from Norman’s Facebook page.

“I remember the silence at the kitchen table” said John Norman, the mayor of Bonavista, Newfoundland, describing the cod fishery closure in 1992. In Grade Two at the time, he stills recalls the paralysis that set in when a decision made by people far-away resulted in the largest mass lay-off of workers in Canadian history. Norman compared the cod moratorium to what would happen if the automobile industry in Ontario was shut down overnight. The impact of his introductory statement was felt by everyone in the St. Andrews arena meeting hall on June 25.

Norman began his New Brunswick tour in Sackville on June 23, sharing his hopeful story of rural economic revitalization around the province. Promoting the Sackville event, the sponsoring organization, the Co-operative Enterprise Council of New Brunswick (CECNB), described Norman as “the Baron of Bonavista credited with turning his small town in Newfoundland into a ‘mecca for millenials’ with a thriving business sector, an exploding tourism market, and the fastest growing real estate market in the province.” Norman was a Pre-AGM workshop speaker at the CECNB Annual General Meeting at the Apohaqui Community Centre on Wednesday, June 26.

On June 24, in Miramichi, Norman shared his story of hope, hard work, determination and strong sense of localism in his community. The promotion for the event includes Norman’s statement that Bonavista’s success is understanding the question: “Why do people decide to live where they live and visit where they visit?” He believes the answer is authenticity, a strong connection to “place” and marketing the community’s vitality.

In his event in St. Andrews, Norman said that with a population of less than 4,000, on a peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean, the town of Bonavista is an example of what is possible when locals start taking control of their rural environment. Throughout his presentation, he often referred to his work and belief in social justice with his community rather than his work as an entrepreneur.

Norman was surprised to learn during this tour of New Brunswick that communities here receive only a fraction of the tax dollars they generate, due to provincial regulations. In Newfoundland and Labrador, “we keep 100% of what we generate locally,” he stated. “We use our tax revenue to invest in local site restoration (like boardwalks, community shared spaces, etc.) along with local businesses and new start-ups, all contributing to our long-term development strategy.”

Their development strategy also prevents the introduction of large box stores on the edge of town which take away business from their downtown small businesses. “Why would we allow a large corporate operation that could walk away at any time? We learned our lesson with the single industry cod fishery that was being managed by Ottawa without any input from our community.”

After moving away from Bonavista for further education, Norman returned to his home community with his partner in 2010. By 2014, he had left his full-time job to start Bonavista Living. The company website contains pictures of the restoration work he undertakes with historical buildings in his community.

In his presentation, Norman described that Bonavista Living acquired more than 50 residential heritage properties to rejuvenate, chosen for their architectural and historical significance, placement within historic neighborhoods, and the level of threat they were under. The plan is to completely restore the properties and repurpose them as vacation rentals, affordable housing units, or private homes. In the process, laneways and footpaths are awakened and neighbourhoods and the community are revitalized.

After Norman was elected mayor in 2017, revitalization projects included developing community leisure and gathering spaces. Responding to a question from a Saint Andrews council member, Norman said their town is now spending more than 20% of its budget to support arts and culture.

Norman and the town of Bonavista are now attracting millions of dollars in historical restoration investment. But the real benefit in these strategic investments is from their efforts to attract new small businesses in the community. As well, matching federal and provincial funding along with private sector dollars is helping to make Bonavista’s shared community vision a reality.

As a response to this need, Norman and his partner started Bonavista Creative and then Bonavista Creative Workshop. He said the millenials who move to the community desire creating an innovative rural space. People want to live there, and they draw in others, either as residents, entrepreneurs or visitors. Together they are focusing more on building a healthy vibrant environment for year-round residents, rather than constantly courting one-time visitors.

Brian Beaton is researching rural broadband infrastructure for the RAVEN project, as a doctoral candidate at UNB. He is the calendar coordinator for the NB Media Co-op.

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