Identity and commitment to place: How regions “become” in rural Canada

Sean Markey, Sarah-Patricia Breen, Kelly Vodden, and Jen Daniels


Canada has long been described as a country' of regions. This is not unexpected, given the scale of the Canadian geopolitical space and a historical reliance on a staples-based economy shaped by core—periphery dynamics in different parts of the country. As a result, Canada has been divided into myriad regions using factors such as climate, physical features, politics, and economic activities.

While regional development disparities in Canada were recognized in the early 1900s, prior to the 1950s Canada lacked an articulated public policy and any formal program for addressing the structural problems associated with uneven regional development (Beaumier, 1998; Fairbairn, 1998; Polese, 1999). It was only during the immediate post-WWII period that the federal government began to adopt explicit regional development policies (Weaver & Gunton, 1982; Savoie, 1992, 2003; Beaumier, 1998).

As in other industrialized parts of the world, Canadian regional development evolved using an underlying if implicit theoretical framework with a goal to facilitate economic growth within spatially defined areas. Space here is understood using simple Cartesian logic—connecting various locations to somewhere else on an “isotropic plane”. As described in standard business and economic geography texts, locational and investment decision-making are based on balancing three location-focused points:

  • 1. the location of the raw material inputs to the production process;
  • 2. the location of the target market; and
  • 3. the location of the production facility'.

This balance requires consideration of the costs of moving raw materials versus finished products (usually based on the bulk transport costs of each) against other key inputs such as the cost and skills of the labour force, regulation or taxation costs, power and energy' costs and availability, and the market value of the product.

The Canadian economy relies heavily on natural resources—both directly and indirectly. Governments have chosen policies that treat these resources as commodities in relatively unprocessed forms. This means the creation of an economic and social infrastructure that is fundamentally organized to move raw natural resources across great distances, through trade, to more advanced industrial economies where they are refined, processed, and sold in transformed states. The returns on these commodities serve as a basis for importing consumer items, machinery, and electronics and a great variety of personal and commercial services (Reimer, 2014).

The regional investment process during the post-WWII period was driven by the need to reconcile local staple assets with distance and topography, in addition to geopolitical boundaries such as tariff and non-tariff barriers. The result was the creation of resource-dependent regional economies, connected via roads, rail lines, and port facilities that supported the movement of extracted resources from rural to urban spaces. In western and northern Canada, governments established policies for the development of resource frontiers to overcome the costs of space in order to access remote resource sites, facilitate harvesting and production, and transport resources to markets for the benefit of the local, regional, and provincial economies. This approach is exemplified by the “roads to resources” policies initiated at the national level under Prime Minister Diefenbaker, in power from 1957 to 1963, or provincial counterparts, such as the province-building era under BC Premier WAC Bennett, in power from 1952 to 1972. It was via those roads developed under the policies of Diefenbaker and his contemporaries that the vast resource reserve of distant rural spaces was accessed for provincial and national benefit (Mitchell, 1983).

However, in a globalized economy where geographic space (i.e., raw distance, measured in terms of time or financial transfer costs) is declining in importance and the capacity of federal and provincial governments is eroding, we find that the simplistic spatial model that has guided Canadian regional development policy for 60 years is fragmenting. Researchers have articulated this transition in development theory, policy, and practice as the shift from space-based to place-based development (Portugali, 2006; Markey et al., 2012). Decisions around the location (and retention) of labour and capital are now driven by a much more complex set of variables. The characteristics of places in terms of regulations, connectivity to the world economy, available labour supply, supportive industries and skills, quality-of-life services and amenities, natural environment, safety, political stability, and a host of other inputs to the production and decision-making systems mean that a composite of factors differentiating places now guide the investment decisions of capital, as against the previously simple balance of costs of labour, resources, and transportation. In other words, as space is becoming less important in the global economy, place is becoming more important (Douglas, 2005).

This raises the question of whether place is emerging in practice as a critical dimension in the development of Canadian rural regions. Recently, Jones and Paasi (2013) set as an assignment for regional researchers: the task to better understand how regions “become”. There is symmetry to the timing of this question in Canada. We have a decent understanding of how regional development, using a space-based approach, was constructed in the 30-year period between the 1950s and the early 1980s: a period known as the “long boom” of staples-dependent expansion (Hayter, 2000) or as the “Intervention Period” in Chapter 2. Following the recession of the early 1980s, we have also garnered a reasonable consensus regarding the restructuring principles and processes, driven by a neoliberal agenda, that have been dismantling much of that hard and soft regional development infrastructure for the past 30 years (Beaumier, 1996, 1998; Polese, 1999; Savoie, 2003). This now leaves us with the question of what next? Will rural regions in Canada continue to fray under the pressures of political and economic restructuring, or will they re-group, drawing upon new (or revisited) principles and processes to identify opportunities and new ways of being? This is the essence and uncertainty surrounding the incoherent negotiation period articulated in Chapter 2 (see Chapter 2, Figure 2.1).

Regional development has been making a comeback, even though many countries throughout the industrialized world have been steadily dismantling (in policy and investment) the development infrastructure associated with the first wave of post-war regionalism. New regionalism has emerged as a prominent, if highly contested approach—including the reconceptualization of the spatial entity of the region—for addressing the complexity of territorial development and mitigating the negative impacts associated with both political and industrial restructuring (Barnes & Gertler, 1999; Storper, 1999; Scott, 2000, 2004). As senior governments and large industries have withdrawn from direct development responsibility, regions promise both enough scale and capacity to construct and invest in new trajectories of development. New regionalism thus occupies an intermediate position, within a dynamic tension between the abandonment of traditional patterns of top-down stewardship and the appeal of local control and place-sensitive intervention.

Within the concept of place and place-based development is the interpretation of identity as a mobilizing and organizing force for regionalism. As Bristow (2010) states, place is a “holistic concept that bridges the analysis of people, institutions, and economies with the context-specific natural resources on which they ultimately depend” (p. 155). New regionalism demands a more active regional participation and engagement in the development process, which may include individual or co-construction action with any level or type of government. New regionalism, in incorporating governance as one of its dimensions, allows for government if and when required (Amin, 1999; Hettne et al., 2000; Heisler, 2012). Thus, in answering Jones and Paasi’s (2013) question of how regions become, it seems a critical answer involves the recognition and mobilization of regionalism by regional actors. Regardless of the theoretical transition from space to place, in practice these regional actors, particularly in the face of declining senior government or industrial stewardship of regions, must essentially choose to be a region—and to act accordingly in their planning and development decisions and activities.

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