Change is inevitable. It can be full of difficult, life-altering choices or, it can be full of new, life-changing opportunities. Most importantly, for University of Northern British Columbia Geography Professor Dr. Greg Halseth, how people and communities adapt to change can be analyzed, insights can be gleaned, and lessons can be learned and shared.
Halseth, the Canada Research Chair in Rural in Small Town Studies, has spent years leading the study of the changing face of Northern British Columbia at UNBC. Over that time, Halseth and his team have influenced public-sector policy makers, advised private-sector decision-makers, and added to the fountain of knowledge about how rural communities around the world adapt to changing global markets.
Halseth has been part of the Canada Research Chair (CRC) program since 2001 when he was appointed to his first of two Tier 2 chairs. In 2011, he became UNBC’s first Tier 1 Chair and this year that appointment was renewed for a second, seven-year mandate.
“The premise of our research is that rural and small town places are exceedingly valuable in the economy,” Halseth says. “These communities have economic, social, and community destinies. They are going to be vibrant into the future.”
When his CRC journey began in 2001, Halseth says the first goal was to put together what he describes as the jigsaw puzzle of Northern B.C.’s economic, social, demographic and political reality.
“We looked at topics ranging from housing, to demographics, to the economy, to the voluntary sector, to services provision, to local government and to Aboriginal governance, and many more,” he says. “We were trying to see how they all fit together and trying to see how they were all being impacted by change.”
The result of that project was Investing in Place, a book co-authored by Halseth, Dr. Sean Markey and Don Manson that shifted the lens we use to view small towns. Rather than being space-based, Halseth and his fellow researchers argued they are place-based. The space-based monoculture model, in the context of Northern B.C., for example, was a series of sawmilling towns, each with their own mill. The place-based future emphasizes the unique attributes and assets of each community.
“If you are to take a drive along Highway 16 in 2038, you are still likely to find a sawmilling town, but you will also find a community that is involved in ecotourism and amenity migration, another that might be focused on mining, another with a focus on retirement and outdoor activities, another that is working on specialty agriculture, and of course those with some combination of multiple economic activities,” Halseth says. “In other words, they’ll be diversified based on the unique assets of the places, rather than some homogenous public policy.”
Northern B.C.’s story is part of a larger narrative of small towns and rural communities around the globe that are undergoing intense periods of change and the space-based to place-based transformation has global application.
During his first Tier 1 CRC appointment, Halseth and his team of research associates and managers, as well as graduate and undergraduate students, explored the global influences impacting Northern B.C. They also looked at how the challenges and opportunities facing small and rural communities varied around the globe. Their findings are shared in a pair of publications, Transformation of Resource Peripheries, edited by Halseth, and Towards a Political Economy of Resource-dependent Regions, written by Halseth and Laura Ryser.
“While there are always details that are different in other countries, the theme of the changes are the same,” Halseth says.
The next phase of the research, during his second Tier 1 CRC appointment, will look at developing solutions for rural and small town communities in Northern B.C. and beyond.
“We know a lot about how rural and small town economies are changing and what they need to do to be successful,” Halseth says. “We identified the pieces during the Tier 2 phase, we brought it all together in the first Tier 1 phase, and this next phase is all about what is next.”
Halseth says the funding from the CRC program has been valuable in helping him nurture relationships that are vital for his research. Whether its regular trips to Victoria to meet with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, or travelling to the many small communities that dot the region to engage with leaders and community members, Halseth says keeping the lines of communication open is key to understanding change and developing strategies to adapt.
Halseth, the first UNBC faculty member to be named a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair and have that Chair renewed, says it takes a team effort from faculty and staff across the institution.
“For me to be able to put forward a package of work from the past and a package of proposed work for the future, depends on having really great staff at UNBC,” Halseth says. “It takes teamwork from multiple departments, from the Office of Research, to Finance, to Contracts and Risk Management, to Human Resources, and many more. All of these groups are supporting the research endeavor and allowing researchers to focus their time on research.”
He says he’s honoured to have been selected and re-appointed as a CRC over the years, but adds there are many deserving candidates at the University.
“The initial appointment and renewal accrue to an individual, there is no such thing as an individual researcher in today’s academia and certainly not in the area of rural and small town studies,” he says. “This is a valuable commodity for the University and it’s a precious gift for the researcher. It’s a real honour to be the person representing UNBC in that position.”