Miramichi is technically New Brunswick’s fifth largest city. I use the word “technically” because aside from a forced amalgamation which joined the towns of Chatham and Newcastle together with an assortment of neighboring villages, this isn’t a city by any stretch of the imagination. The old divisions between communities still find ways to maintain themselves for the pettiest of reasons.
The economy is in shambles, especially since CFB Chatham closed, the mills have all shut down and a construction firm that had been propped up by the provincial government went bust. I think it is safe to say that Miramichi’s best days are behind it. There is always a chance that some day, someone will swoop down from the heavens and be able to reverse this downward trajectory that we’ve been on for the last few years, but whatever possibilities are floated about in discussions seem to be at best a holding pattern, not so much to reverse the trajectory but stop it or at least slow it down. As much as the many call centre jobs here are desperately needed at a time like this, it would be foolish to think that many jobs at just higher than minimum wage can be an adequate replacement for the industry we’ve lost, and it is likely that once the government funding runs out, those jobs will be gone too. Even the payroll centre that’s coming in seems to be a fill in for whenever the government abolishes the long-gun registry.
Ever since the economy started its decline, one angle that Miramichi has been using to sell itself is as a retirement community. After all, the Miramichi River is well known for its salmon fishing. You remember salmon, the fish that return to the place they hatched to die. Maybe they had this in mind as a subtle and grim joke. Maybe not. Either way, Miramichi is a place biased towards the old. There seems to be an innate suspicion against young people…after all, if someone is under 40 they must be on drugs or some sort of hooligan. It ends up becoming self-fulfilling prophecy anyway because of the limited options that young people have for recreation: it’s either ball or hockey. Anyone not interested in either doesn’t really have any other way to keep occupied besides getting high or having sex, as well as having the added stigma of being “different” in a region that doesn’t have a whole lot of room for non-conformists.
I’ve seen over the years how much the region subscribes to what some people call the “small town mentality”. It often feels like this place skipped ahead from the 1940s to the 1980s and just gave up moving ahead around 1985. There is a sense that “the way it’s always been,” no matter how impractical or damaging in the long run, is preferable to anything new or different. In a place this small, it’s bound to be close-knit, for better or for worse. It can provide needed support for people firmly inside, but it also can inadvertently push out anyone not firmly entrenched in the community for generations. A lot of the same family names keep popping up around here, and not being related to someone else in the region is a sure sign you’re an outsider. The shallowness of the gene pool is so notorious that when the community was terrorized by a serial killer 20 years ago, his defense actually tried to use the inbreeding in the region as an excuse to discount the DNA evidence (it didn’t work). But even if there wasn’t the amount of family links between the residents, there would still be that insular, inbred feeling because of this resistance to change.
In a conservative province, this has got to be one of the most conservative regions. One area where this is especially evident is the opinion page of the local newspaper, dominated by elderly men, with three particularly frequent contributors. One is fairly benign, with letters mainly about giving to the community and the importance of religious faith. Another has a tendency to ramble at length about nothing in particular while conflating fact with his own opinion. The third is the angry old coot, writing bitterly spiteful screeds against multiculturalism and French-Canadians and feeling threatened because the days of open racism and homophobia being socially acceptable being long gone, and opposing sex education lectures because of “morality” concerns, as if it is somehow more moral to keep the pregnancy rates skyrocketing or to let people get diseases. It’s not like people weren’t fucking back in those days. I have to suspect that this guy probably thinks Rachel Lynde was the hero of Anne of Green Gables and is aghast that the grocery store has “ethnic” cheese.
Small places like the Miramichi make it hard for businesses to break even unless they cater to the most mainstream of the mainstream. The movie theatre usually plays the following five options: Overbudget Action Movie, Insipid Comedy, Stupid Kids Movie, Pointlessly 3D Movie and Treacly Drama. The closure of the music store means that people have to depend on the selection in Wal-Mart or Zellers: new releases and greatest hits collections. Even the restaurant selection here seems to be quite homogeneous. We have a ridiculous number of Tim Hortons, Subway, Chinese food and pizza places for a population this size, but aside from a few other fast food places and “old people’s cafeterias”, not really a whole lot of variety in terms of dining options. We’re lucky we even have an Indian restaurant here. The way the economy is, though, I can’t see any different eating selections popping up here anytime soon.
New Brunswick has a reputation of being a “drive-thru” province, stuck in between the French behemoth Quebec and the more storied beauty of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. Because Miramichi is two hours away from the main highway that passes between Quebec and Nova Scotia, people only tend to come here if they have a reason to, and leaving here is also a chore. The main connections from the Trans-Canada to Miramichi are two-lane highways in varying states of disrepair. The most direct route is Route 108, which passes through over 100 km of uninerrupted forest without so much as a gas station or bathroom, but with the ever-present risk of colliding with a moose. Being so out of the way and with comparatively little to draw people here, the world just passes us by. It’s just as well for some people: too many outsiders.
Miramichi’s population is bleeding out. Unless people already have a life established for themselves here, there is really nothing keeping them. Without barbed wire and land mines around the city, people will go. The young people leave to pursue their educations and find fulfilling work, not content to settle for a life in the service industry, a dead end for all but a very small number. The older people who had their livelihoods pulled out from under them have to leave for Alberta to keep what they have left. Others who haven’t fully fit in leave to find communities more tolerant of diversity and different ideas.
The way things look now, I don’t see anything turning around. New Brunswickers never rock the boat even if it is to plug a gaping hole at the bottom.