From Lunenburg County in Southside Virginia to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, a touristy fishing village on the Atlantic coast, it’s just shy of 1,158 mile drive — or 1,863 klicks, as the metric Canadians would say in their slang for kilometers.
If you were to make that 21-hour drive, and still felt up for tooling around some more, you’d come across a lot of other places that sound familiar. There’s a Bridgewater, a Farmville and, eventually, a Halifax. You might even hear some fiddle tunes that sound vaguely similar to the bluegrass we’re familiar with in our part of Virginia.
There are cultural and historical reasons for that — similar settlement patterns, for one thing — but I’m not here today to talk about tourism but about economics and politics, because there are some similarities there, as well, that we in Virginia might learn something from.
You may recall that in July I wrote a column about a law review article authored by Andrew Block, a law professor at the University of Virginia and Antonella Nicholas, then a UVa law student and now a UVa law school graduate. They wrote about some of the challenges facing rural Virginia and concluded with this proposal: Virginia needs a cabinet-level secretary for rural Virginia. As they put it: “If Virginia truly wants to tackle these challenges, and improve the lives of everyone living in rural Virginia, it needs to create a government entity with enough cross-cutting authority to coordinate and direct a range of initiatives across a broad spectrum of substantive and policy areas. In other words, it needs to create a cabinet level position dedicated to rural issues that has enumerated authority to direct agencies across a range of secretariats to pursue those actions necessary to comprehensively and effectively respond to the needs of rural Virginians and the communities in which they live.”
In August, I met with a prominent business leader in Virginia, who told me he had read the column and wanted to make a lobbying push to create such a position because he’s worried about rural Virginia falling behind economically. His argument is that the economic challenges facing rural Virginia are so different from those facing metro Virginia that the state needs someone with a singular focus on rural issues. In September, I was invited to Abingdon to speak to a cohort of local government officials from across rural Virginia who are enrolled in the Rural Leadership Institute. Many of them had also read that column and, to my surprise, wanted to know how they could make that secretariat happen.
I haven’t heard any legislator actually embrace the idea — there are lots of good ideas that never get enacted. And I’ve heard from one former state cabinet secretary who thinks a separate rural secretariat is a terrible idea. I can’t say whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea, but I can do the next best thing: I can look at how this kind of cabinet-level rural secretariat has worked elsewhere. Just one problem: I can’t find any other examples. Lots of states — including Virginia — have sub-secretarial positions devoted to rural economic development. I can’t find any, though, that have a specific secretariat. And while I’ve focused on economic development, the Block-Nicholas article doesn’t — it says we need a rural secretariat who can work on a range of issues.
I did find one place, though, that has a cabinet position dedicated to rural issues. It’s just not a state, it’s a country. Since 2019, Canada has had a minister of rural economic development. The first person to hold that position — what we’d call a cabinet secretary but parliamentary systems call a minister — was Bernadette Jordan of Nova Scotia.
That’s what leads to my description of her former coastal district — what Canadians call a “riding” — just west of Halifax, and what led to my recent Zoom conversation with her to see what advice she might offer us Virginians.
Before we get to that, we might find the politics that led to the creation of the ministry to be instructive. When I asked her if the decision to establish the ministry was political, she chuckled and said: “I think when you’re in government there’s a political dimension to everything.” See — yet more similarities!
Let’s rewind to the Canadian federal election of 2015. Going into the election, the Conservative Party held a majority and Stephen Harper was the prime minister. Canada, unlike us, has multiple major parties, and the Liberal Party at the time was mired in a distant third place after an electoral wipeout in 2011. Four years later, voters were in a very different mood. In 2015, they tossed out the Conservatives and gave the third-place Liberals under Justin Trudeau a majority. (Election geeks, read these numbers and be amazed: The Liberals went from 36 seats to 184 in a single election.)
One thing that happened in that stunning electoral swing was that the Liberals won a bunch of seats in rural districts. As in the United States, rural areas in Canada tend to vote conservatively, although their elections are complicated by multiple parties that split the vote. The rural vote for Liberals was seen most clearly in the overwhelmingly rural Atlantic provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland (formally known as Newfoundland and Labrador). Previously, Conservatives had held most of the seats there; now Liberals held them all. In our electoral terms, this is somewhat akin to a Virginia election where Democrats won every General Assembly seat west of Roanoke. You can imagine that would create some interesting dynamics within the Democratic caucus in Richmond; the same thing happened in Ottawa.
One of those new Liberal parliament members was Bernadette Jordan. She says the new Liberal members from rural Canada banded together and pushed Trudeau to create a cabinet-level position devoted to their areas.
“We can’t focus all our attention on our urban areas,” she told me. Under previous Conservative governments, rural matters were handled through the agriculture ministry, but she points out that while agricultural areas are definitely rural, not all rural areas are agricultural. In the Atlantic provinces, for instance, fishing is a big economic driver, not growing crops or livestock. That’s not all that different from, say, the coal counties of Southwest Virginia, which are definitely rural but not focused on agriculture. “I’m in a community that’s so rural but it’s not an ag community,” Jordan said. “An agriculture minister doesn’t do anything for me.”
Many issues affecting rural areas have nothing to do with raising food of any kind, Jordan pointed out. “We need broadband, we need child care, we need infrastructure,” she said. Rural areas also face unique workforce issues, as the population ages and there are fewer young adults to fill critical positions. “The average age of a fish plant worker is 62 years old,” Jordan said. “What are we going to do when they retire?” To prepare for our interview, Jordan said she had looked at Cardinal News and was struck by how similar the issues facing rural Virginia are to the ones that rural Canadians face. “I’m sitting there reading, yes, yes, yes, out-migration, lack of jobs. Heath care is different here but we have trouble with doctors, they’re not coming to rural Canada.”
Those newly elected Liberal Party members from rural Canada formed their own caucus and met every week to plot strategy. One of their goals: take oversight of rural communities out of the agriculture ministry and create a full-fledged Cabinet position to handle them. “There isn’t any ministry that rural doesn’t touch,” she said. “Infrastructure, health care, immigration, jobs in training, finance — everything impacts rural.” However, “you need someone who can speak to all those other portfolios on the same level.” Otherwise, she said, rural issues will always be a lower priority to urban ones within each ministry — or, in our case, department.
In 2019, Trudeau created a minister of rural economic development and tapped Jordan as its first minister. She didn’t hold the position long — less than a year — before she was appointed to another cabinet post, minister of fisheries, oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard. In that time, she traveled the country, talking to a lot of provincial leaders, the Canadian equivalent of talking to state leaders. Although Canada is a vast country, with lots of rural areas, most of the population is urban. When she brought up rural-related issues, she said some provincial leaders would tell her that wasn’t a problem in their provinces. “You need to talk to your people in rural areas,” she told them.
Jordan said that her biggest accomplishment was “to make sure we were in the budget — to make sure there was a carve-out in every department” for rural funding. For instance, if the federal government was working on a housing program, she pushed to make sure there was a rural component to it.
It’s easy to tell rural areas that have lost their traditional employers that they need to reinvent themselves, but it’s much harder to actually do that. “In order to reinvent yourself, you need the infrastructure to do that,” Jordan said. ”You have to have access to a skilled labor force. They have to have housing. They have to have access to the internet, they have to have access to transportation. It’s not just putting up some signs and saying ‘We’re a great tourist town.’ Somebody needs to put that infrastructure into place. And that’s the struggle — it costs a lot of money.” That’s where having a separate rural ministry mattered most, she said. “Being able to say to the finance minister, sitting next to me, ‘I need $5 billion to connect rural Canada with broadband.’ It’s not coming from a backbencher. That’s why you need someone who can rally that support.”
Jordan is now out of parliament. While Trudeau’s Liberal Party remains in power, the Conservatives made gains in the 2021 elections and one of those seats it picked up was hers. The current rural minister is Gudie Hutchings of Newfoundland and Labrador. She’s been making the news in Canada for pushing ways for rural areas to benefit from the transition away from fossil fuels. She recently announced $2 million — $1.46 million in American greenbacks — to help companies on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton commercialize green technology.
So what does all this mean for Virginia?
First, it means there’s an example to study if the state chooses to set up such a cabinet secretariat. “I’m just very passionate about the survival of rural communities,” Jordan said. “We seem to be last on the list when it comes to making sure things are looked after. We can’t keep doing that.”
However, the political circumstances between here and there are quite different. There will not be a big clutch of rural Democrats in Richmond the way there was a whole caucus of rural Liberals in Ottawa. Virginia Democrats may well find that the idea of a rural secretariat is an appealing one as a way to show their concern for a part of the state that rarely votes for them anymore, but it’s not going to help them win. The question is what rural Republicans think of this idea. They’re the ones most averse to expanding the size of government in Richmond, yet they also represent the communities that would most benefit from such a position. They might feel well taken care of now with a Republican administration in power — and a governor who won office on the strength of a big rural turnout — but they might want to consider what a future Democratic administration might be like, because any future Democratic governor won’t have much, if any, political debt to rural Virginia.