Eastern Ontario may not look like 14th century Italy, but for Susan Fournier, we are going through our very own rural renaissance.
For all the joking that goes on about students picking English as their major because they couldn’t settle on a ‘real’ major, Fournier, the executive director of the Valley Heartland Community Futures Development Corporation, joked that she had found practical applications not only for her English, but her history majors as well, even in the world of business.
“(History) helps up to know where we’ve been,” she said during her keynote speech at the Perth and District Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner at Code’s Mill on the Park on Thursday, Oct. 25. “It (my majors) have held me in good stead.”
In her speech, “The Renaissance of Rural Ontario: Seizing the future, one dream at a time,” she noted that the original renaissance, which lasted roughly from the 14th to 17th century, and began in Italy before spreading to the rest of Europe, saw a blossoming of science, culture and trade, when Europeans came “in contact with other cultures,” thereby enriching their own.
“Renaissance means rebirth,” said Fournier.
The Europeans also delved back into the past to enliven their present, re-discovering Greek and Roman cultures which re-awakened a pursuit of knowledge, especially in the humanities and sciences.
Just as Europe emerged out of the aptly named Dark Ages, in rural Ontario “we are beign reborn.” Only this time, however, instead of Marco Polo setting out from his home in Italy to discover Asia and the Silk Road, rural Ontario’s renaissance has been brought about by that already-archaic phrase, the information superhighway, or, as Fournier put it, “our renaissance in rural Ontario has been heralded by the Internet,” meaning that our businesses can compete far beyond our borders.
Our province has also recently had to contend with its own dark ages, when manufacturing jobs were shed, and people moved west to new opportunities in places like Alberta.
But Ontarians have shown their resolve in spite of these difficult times, with “a resolve and a willingness to adopt and adapt,” she said. “A willingness and openness to welcome and embrace the new.”
Perth, for example, has shown a willingness to embrace the past while moving with the times.
“See how quickly the Kilt Run has grown,” she said, before listing off an impressive line of festivals and events like the Perth Fair, Stewart Park Festival, and the Festival of the Maples.
“Look around this magnificent building,” she said of Code’s Mill. “This location has faced its own challenges over the years,” much like eastern Ontario’s towns and villages. But she commended the entrepreneurs who had a vision of what Code’s Mill could be. In other communities, as well as Perth, she said that masons are hard at work preserving the natural treasure that is our town’s treasure of stone buildings, which have “withstood the rise and fall of industry.”
“We persevere because we have very strong foundations,” said Fournier.
Aside from the internet, there are other new ‘silk roads’ that are a boon to business.
“Rail is not as extensive as it was 100 years ago,” Fournier said. “(But) four land highways are bringing urban centres closer and closer.”
Keeping this success going is easy, according to Fournier.
“We are poised to grow now better than every before,” said Fournier. “We need only to do what we have done before, quietly, stoically, holding fast. We can compete with any and all.”
Fournier started as Valley Heartland’s executive director back in January. She was born in Carleton Place and raised in Smiths Falls, and graduated from the University of Toronto where she majored in English and history. Amongst her many jobs over the years has been the tourism manager for the city of Brockville, working at a publishing company, the Ontario Trillium Fund, as well as working in retail.
“I make it a point to get out and speak as often as possible,” said Fournier.
Even though Ontario’s manufacturing industry has taken a big hit, especially during The Great Recession, “our remaining manufacturing (sector is) developing world-class products. But they are very cautious. (They are) not rushing out.”
Valley Heartland is a not-for-profit organization that encourages entrepreneurship and economic opportunities for businesses in Lanark and North Leeds counties. Even though the economic picture remains shaky, Fournier said that, from her perspective, in spite of the negative news, “you don’t hear about the growth that is happening, slowly.”