The Big Idea: Canada’s rural areas are in decline, one woman has a solution

WATCH ABOVE: The fourth instalment in The West Block’s series The Big Idea, in which we look beyond the daily political skirmishes. Here, we engage in a broader and more engaging discussion of our potential as a nation and a people.

Moments after sitting down in a modest, hand-made armchair, one of Canada’s wealthiest women offers a challenge.

“Find me one person in this country who hasn’t benefitted in some way from rural areas.”

Her name is Zita Cobb.

She is sitting among lunching guests at the high-end, 29-room Fogo Island Inn, a white building, longer than it is tall, perched on the northern coast of Fogo Island, N.L.

It is a grey and windy April day on Fogo Island. The air coming off the frigid North Atlantic leaves no doubt nature rules this speck of land off the northern coast of Newfoundland.

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The 11 communities scattered over the rocky, barren landscape house less than half the bodies they once did. Many families, not unlike that of Cobb’s, packed up when the cod-fishing industry began to show signs it would collapse.

GALLERY: The trip to Fogo Island

Today, fewer than 2,400 people call Fogo Island home, according the federal census.

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Fogo Island, like so many of Canada’s rural areas, is where natural resources like fuel and food live. It’s also where many of the cultural trends and traditions that make Canada distinctly Canadian were born.

But it’s not where the nation’s wealth resides; the average annual income on Fogo Island is $20,000.

And so, many residents in those areas are moving to urban centres, creating a huge loss for the country, Cobb says.

“Canada has some great cities, and they benefit more than just financially from rural places,” Cobb said in an interview after lunch. “They benefit culturally, they benefit from the intellectual heritage of the place. They benefit from being able to come to places like this.”

Coming back home

Now sitting near the front entrance, the vast ocean, seemingly never-ending, is visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind her.

Cobb was born and raised on Fogo Island, in a house without electricity or running water. She, her brothers and parents left when she was 16. As the style of fishing began to change in the late 1960s, she says her dad felt the collapse was not far. He had a sense that 400 years of fishermen trawling the waters off Fogo Island was coming to an end.

After three decades away from Fogo Island, a time during which she graduated from university, moved to the United States and made a fortune in the tech sector, she returned to the island with the goal of resuscitating its foundering economy.

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Small houses and fishing stages line the harbour in Joe Batt’s Arm, the community over which the Inn towers.

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On an overcast day, the Inn blends in to the sky, almost disappearing into the clouds. The building was constructed from local sources of lumber and filled with furniture the carpenters up the built with their hands.

It is the centrepiece of Cobb’s vision to keep the island’s culture and spirit alive, and to bring its economy back to life.

The ferry to Fogo Island, NL has to forge a path through a sheet of ice covering the Atlantic Ocean. Amy Minsky/Global News

Reversing a common mindset

Cobb invested $35 million of her own money to help build the hotel, then collected another $18 million from the provincial and federal governments, and $23 million from private donations.

The Inn is part of the Shorefast Foundation, a registered charity Cobb set up with her youngest brother in 2003. The tenets of the foundation are to provide a work program for artists from around the world, offer loans to individuals with innovative ideas who don’t have the financial backing, revive decaying buildings and boats, and to draw lavish-spending tourists to the Inn.

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Those are a few ways she believes she can help achieve that vision.

“We are a resource-rich country,” Cobb says. “I have not met a Canadian whose money, if he or she has any, didn’t come from a rural place somehow … We have, for generations, extracted resources from rural places. And these rural people, whose culture is very deeply tied to, whether it’s fish or farming or whatever it is, have, generally speaking, not been the owners of the capital.”

GALLERY: Inside the Fogo Island Inn

To reverse this spiral, Cobb says the country needs a “revolution of imagination,” one in which businesses and citizens put stock in nature and culture rather than focussing only on finances.

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“I would say that short-sighted thinkers would say it’s about money and being efficient. If we optimize for efficiency, that is a very slippery and quick road to a bad place,” she says. “Human joy doesn’t come from money. Our ability to live responsibly with each other, our ability to have a democracy, comes from a lot more than money.”

Pure joy, she argues, comes from what she calls sacred capital, or wealth gleaned from the cultural, social, spiritual and environmental qualities of a place.

“If we have such little imagination that all we know how to do is suck the good out of that sacred capital until it dies, and then abandon it in order to create financial capital, we don’t deserve the country we have,” the former accountant says. “Just because it’s easy for us bean counters to measure financial capital and earnings per share and all of that, doesn’t mean that’s the most important thing.”

To Cobb, the “most important thing” is nature and culture. Together, she says, those form the “true garments” of human life.

Tapping local talent

A short trip from the Inn, up a dirt road, sits a long building with mismatched siding and covered windows. Inside, the tabletops and machinery are covered with a layer of sawdust.

Earl Cull and Guy Freake are each at a station, heads down, focused on furniture they are building that will soon find a home at the Inn.

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Cull’s wife, Sandra, also works at the Inn.

Today, he is putting together a lounge called the “Get Your Feet Up.” Freake, meanwhile, is building a Punt Chair, which sits behind the desks in the guest rooms.

Together, Cull and Freake are using their carpentry skills to make some backup furniture, should anything at the Inn break or become worn out.

GALLERY: Locals building furniture and sewing quilts

Cull, like a majority of those working at the hotel is originally from Fogo Island, though he spent a few years in St. John’s, N.L. and in Toronto.

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He says he’s got a couple of kids now living in St. John’s.

“They like the city now because they’re young,” he says. “I’m sure it’ll grow out of them.”

Across the road, inside a bright yellow building with long purple doors, a half-dozen women are at work, some leaning over a broad table draped with the makings of a colourful quilt.

The sounds of chatter, a fire crackling in the wood-burning oven and electric sewing machines fill the air.

The women of the artist’s guild made all the quilts and vibrant textiles adorning the Inn.

“It did start out with the quilts, and then it was all the knitted products for the crocheted mats for the floors,” says Millicent Dwyer, who has more than 20 years of quilting under her belt.

“We’re like, ‘My God, that’s a lot of work.’ But anyway, just here with our social group and chatting, I’d say we had 33 knitters who came forward. We didn’t even have to look.”

Using technology to sustain nature

Cobb’s drive to tap local talent for almost all aspects of the Inn has helped increase the profile of the artists’ guild and, by extension, their sales.

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This is part of her laser focus on reinforcing the strength of Fogo Island’s culture and nature; two small, but vital patches on the rich tapestry of Canada.

A business woman by trade, Cobb is, of course, not ignorant to the important roles industry and technology play in modern society. These manmade tools, plentiful in Canada, also help keep the country together, she says.

Even more, she says she believes they are critical to preserving nature and culture.

“The good news is we’ve got all the parts. The bad news is they’re exactly upside down … So what we need to do is to find a way to get business being a better servant to nature and culture,” she says. “We’ve just got to figure out how to turn it around.”

Turning that prevalent mindset around, where society no longer assumes nature and culture are at the disposal of business and technology, is the only way Canada’s rural areas will endure, Cobb says. It’s the only way Canada can hold on to the customs and traditions for which it’s known.

While she is doing her part, she is only focussed on one remote island in a wide country.

If a majority of the country continues to believe the decline of rural areas is inevitable and natural, it won’t be long before that rich tapestry dulls, Cobb says.

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“What’s important about Fogo Island is that it’s specific,” she says. “Do you want to live in a world where everything’s the same? No. Nobody wants to live in that world.”

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