Rural Talks to Rural conference impresses at Four Winds Barn
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
With another four days now in the history books, Peter Smith of the Canadian Centre for Rural Creativity says the fourth Rural Talks to Rural conference succeeded in bringing rural residents together, which has always been its unofficial mission statement.
The conference went ahead over the course of four days, located at the Brussels Four Winds Barn, marking the first time it had been held outside of Blyth. Smith said it proved to be a great backdrop for the conference, and Paul Nichol of the organizing committee and Community Futures Huron, as well as a Brussels resident, agreed.
Nichol said the sessions were all great and really connected to the community and were at the same time timely and timeless. The four days were themed, with the first day focusing on well-being, the second on housing and the third on climate and community, with the fourth day looking ahead to future considerations.
He said the speakers were world class, which is not uncommon for a Rural Talks to Rural conference, but he really felt it was the best conference yet. Nichol, however, admits that he might be a bit biased, with this year’s event being held in his home community of Brussels.
Smith said that while the speakers were all excellent, the only direction he gave them was for everyone, during their time on stage, to tell a deeply personal story about themselves. He said that connecting on a personal level is what sets the conference apart and he thought those stories really made for interesting presentations and put forward a sense of community.
Nichol said that, for him and those who were visiting the village, the conference almost served as the jumping-off point that led to hours of conversations every night about what happened over the course of the day.
Smith agreed, saying there was a real sense of community at this conference with how Brussels residents embraced the conference. Attendees ate breakfast at the Brussels Legion every morning and a number of events were open to members of the public. In addition, many of those attending were from Huron East, he said, including many Huron East councillors, which he found very encouraging. In addition, there were also many familiar faces, like Central Huron Councillor Alison Lobb, Huron East Chief Administrative Officer Brad McRoberts, former Huron County Economic Development Board member Jim Lynn and others, which Smith said helped give the conference a real community atmosphere.
Having good representation locally, in addition to a robust attendance from those coming from around the country and even internationally, Smith said, is essential to the success of the conference, not just to increase attendance, but to diversify the points of view and discussion points.
He also said that the community buy-in, from the team at the Four Winds Barn to those at the Legion was fantastic. He was also impressed with the first-ever R2R Market, which was held on the last day of the conference and brought together plenty of local merchants and producers.
Nichol said that, while he was disappointed that his historical walkabout throughout the village - making its way from the Four Winds Barn to Logan’s Mill - was cancelled due to inclement weather, one of his favourite events of the weekend was the Wednesday night concert, featuring Al Lerman.
The Juno Award winner and his band brought together conference attendees, Nichol said, as well as the crowd that would often attend the blues concerts at Cinnamon Jim’s, when it was open years ago, which was a real piece of connective tissue from the past of the village to the present.
On that note, Nichol said that Dr. Baretta Casey being at the conference, all the way from Hazard, Kentucky also represented a reunion many years in the making.
Casey was instrumental in the creation of what is now the Gateway Centre for Excellence in Rural Health. It was a delegation from Huron East that included people like Joe and Deb Seili and others that made its way to Kentucky to learn about Casey’s Center of Excellence in Rural Health. Having Casey back in Huron East and reconnecting people who were part of that original delegation, Nichol said, was pretty special to behold, especially considering all that the Gateway Centre has gone on to achieve in Huron County.
Smith says he’s already thinking about the next conference, but, as always, it will be a collaborative effort that comes together over the next two years thanks to plenty of input from local stakeholders. However, thanks to the work of Mary Doyle from Rural on Purpose, who was one of the presenters at the conference, the wheels in his brain have begun turning about the potential for a rural futurist planning project, which Nichol said he thought would be a great idea. Smith said it would be a great collaborative effort among the Canadian Centre for Rural Creativity, Community Futures Huron and the Gateway Centre.
When looking to the future, Nichol talked about the day themes of this year’s conference. He said that while health care, housing and climate change are all among the most important topics facing rural Ontario today, at the same time, they’re not going anywhere. They’re going to remain issues of concern for years to come, which is another feather in the conference’s cap for its foresight.
Near the end of the conversation, Smith said it was truly inspiring and special to have Citizen Founding Publisher Keith Roulston in attendance for two of the days. The conference sprouted from an idea of Roulston’s many years ago, Smith said, and he has been involved in the conference since its inception. Having him there, with his years of extensive rural knowledge and curiosity, Smith said, meant the world to him and to many others attending the conference.
Walton-based videographer Nick Vinnicombe was hard at work over the course of the four days making a documentary about the conference, Smith said. He hopes that many of the presentations and panel discussions will be online in the coming months, giving those who weren’t able to attend a chance to learn a bit about what went on.
For more information or to keep up with future events, visit the Canadian Centre for Rural Creativity’s website online at