The teams for the senior water boil were spread out across the pavement, each pair crouched over a can of soapy water and a pile of sticks. Soon, one was gathering up shavings and putting a match to them while the other hacked up kindling to keep the flames growing under the can.
The water boil is part of the 4H Woodsmen competition and the one I witnessed happened at the recent Cumberland County rally held in Pugwash. While the Woodsmen event doesn’t appeal to every member, it certainly is as much fun for the spectators as for the participants.
It got particularly exciting when Becky caught fire.
To build the fire under the can to a tiny but roaring inferno, the pairs stoked the flames by taking a turn at blowing on them. Blow, roll away for a breath, blow, roll away for a breath. It’s the rolling back to the fire that poses the greatest risk for eyebrows and clothing.
Becky was wearing a sweatshirt over her coveralls and at some point when she rolled away for a breath, her sweater was on fire. People were hollering at her, someone was trying to pat her out, but Becky either didn’t hear or didn’t care; her focus was on keeping that fire going.
I’d planned to write more about this and what I’m learning as a journalist spending a year with a 4H club but the provincial budget came out and the “rural” part of Nova Scotia was wiped off the board and suddenly, Blazing Becky and her Sweater of Fire became a touchstone for my response to a decision announced in this budget.
The Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism has been axed and replaced by the Department of Business.
What I know about business has to do with marketing and promotion, and with building relationships; my strengths are ideas, not financing and bookkeeping. But I’m also a writer and I know the power of words. If “rural” is no longer in the title, it no longer exists.
We’re fighting school and hospital closures, and the creative and innovative thinkers wanted by the Department of Business know the power of small and local and community-based, but the government is stuck in its belief that bigger is better. Wouldn’t three small departments covering three very specific areas do a better job of addressing the diverse needs of this province than one monster department trying to be all things for all people? Someone always loses out in that scenario and after last week’s budget, it’s rural Nova Scotia.
Rural Nova Scotia is bleeding people, services are in decline, and businesses are closing as a result of government policy and now that we no longer have even a share in a department, it’s clear the government has slammed the door on rural people and how they live in their rural communities.
As I watch the young people who make up 4H participate in speeches and Woodsmen, in cake decorating and judging, I realize that part of the problem is the dominance of urban needs and perspectives. Decision-makers living in the city can’t accommodate rural interests and values because they don’t know what they are.
Rural values are about growing what you need, replacing what you use, not wasting time or materials, supporting local businesses, working together as a community, and honouring those who tilled the way. They aren’t so much about the skill of lighting a fire as they are about the hard work and perseverance to keep it going in spite of a cold March wind. They aren’t so much about coming to a boil first as they are making sure you finish the event.
It’s time for a Department of Rural Life, where rural values are not just understood but promoted. And I want it run by someone like Becky who knows how to catch fire but not get burned.