Learning to build back better post-Covid-19 and beyond

Written by Lisa Hrabluk

Best-selling author. Award-winning journalist. Purpose-led entrepreneur. Find me hanging out where culture, people and ideas collide.

April 30, 2020

It’s mid-April and up and down the length of New Brunswick people are in their homes self-isolating and watching the river. It’s the season of the spring thaw, or freshet as it’s known to river people, and the water is rising. How high and how fast it’ll rise depends on a number of factors, such as the depth of the snow pack in northern Maine, the amount of rain in the forecast and the height and timing of the Bay of Fundy tides.

New Brunswick may be located on Canada’s East Coast, bordered on three sides by saltwater — the Bay of Chaleur to the north, the Northumberland Strait to the east and the Bay of Fundy on the south — but its internal rhythms and culture are shaped by the flow of fresh water. The Restigouche and Miramichi Rivers, world-renown for Atlantic salmon fishing; the Petitcodiac River with its tidal bores; and the largest of all the Wolostoq/Saint John River¹, the second-largest river watershed east of the Mississippi.

In 2018 the river roared, flowing at four times its normal rate, damaging 12,000 homes, cottages and buildings and requiring $39 million in federal disaster relief. Then it rose again in 2019 and there was less talk about hundred-year floods and more open conversations about this possibly being our new normal. In between those two floods I wrote a book about the Wolostoq/Saint John River flood, New Brunswick Underwater.

For a few weeks in the summer of 2018 my husband and creative partner, photographer Michael Hawkins and I travelled around southern New Brunswick’s river country interviewing people whose lives are intertwined with the river, for better and for worse. Which is how we met Marion and Bruce Langhus, owners of the Lang House Bed and Breakfast in Gagetown.

We arrived on a sunny July afternoon two months after the water had receded and the first floor of their home, built in 1880 by a riverboat captain, was stripped back to its bones. At its height, water had filled their basement and sat knee deep in their living room and kitchen, buckling their pressed-wood floors, leaving behind dead fish floating in the basement and burn marks around electrical sockets.

Marian and Bruce Langhus in the midst of their 2018 post-flood rebuild. (New Brunswick Underwater, Michael Hawkins photo)

As the Langhus’ say on their website; “If you want to learn about flood mitigation, these are the folks to teach you!” Retired geologists, Marian and Bruce knew if they were going to continue to live and own a business alongside the Wolostoq/Saint John River, they were going to have to learn how to live according to the rhythm of the river. For the Langhus’ that meant living by the credo ‘water in, water out’, and to do that they knew they couldn’t simply rebuild: they needed to build back better.

Those three words — build back better — not only helped me frame New Brunswick Underwater into a story of community resiliency, but also informed my thinking on all sorts of complex public issues. For over three decades I have been on the ground, reporting about and analyzing the effects large-scale economic, ecological, social, technological and political upheavals are having on local communities.

I reported firsthand on the changes that were beginning to disrupt local resource economies; the steady out-migration of young people to bigger cities; and the inequity and anger felt by Indigenous people over broken treaties, restrictive government policies and failed attempts to gain greater control over their lives. I also observed an underlying resentment and growing distrust towards distant governments and corporate players who, if they did come to town, were there to announce closures, shutdowns or social support programs.

Over the last few years these resentments have grown into a rising tide of angry nationalism and reactionary politics, brought here by a confluence of currents such as growing income inequality and the unrealized promises of a new technological and economic age.

This includes technologies familiar to most of us, such as the World Wide Web, personal computers, mobile devices, cloud computing, geolocation services, sensors, machine learning, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, energy storage, autonomous vehicles and social media.

In theory, these new technologies are supposed to reduce barriers to economic and social participation by increasing access to knowledge, markets, capital and opportunities. At least that’s the hope. The reality to date has been an uneven distribution of wealth and advancement.

Then along came COVID-19. It’s forced the world to press pause. Now we’re all sheltering in place, together alone. What shall we do with the time we have been given?

How about we start talking and sharing ideas about how to build back better. To take this COVID-induced pause and consider how to develop new processes, workflows, policies, infrastructure, services and products to help solve our most intractable problems, and in doing so help bring peace to our angry age.

That is what we hope to do here with Deep Change, a safe and welcoming online space to learn from each other how to build back better. It is the first project of the Centre for Deep Change, itself a new community learning initiative within the J. Herbert Smith Centre for Technology Management and Entrepreneurship (TME) at the University of New Brunswick (UNB).

The creation of the Centre draws on the collective knowledge and experience of long-time collaborators and friends UNB president emeritus and TME scholar-in-residence Dr. John D. McLaughlin, TME chair and start-up entrepreneur Dr. Dhirendra Shukla, fellow author and long-time senior UNB advisor Susan Montague and me, a writer, strategist and purpose-driven entrepreneur.

Over the years we have had long talks and friendly debates with each other and with our wider networks about the trajectory of New Brunswick, our shared home, and its place within the wider world. We have noted with great interest and enthusiasm the rise of grassroots community movements both here and elsewhere that are actively engaged in the business of building back better.

Our hope is to use Deep Change as a platform to tell some of those stories of change and to contribute to the building of a community of people united in our desire to accelerate New Brunswick’s transition to a sustainable, inclusive and prosperous place in a post-COVID world and to share our learning with others around the world.

We hope you’ll want to join us and bring along some of your friends and the people who inspire you. We’ll get started here on Medium, where our stories will live and we’ll cross-post on our new Facebook page. I’ll get the story started on LinkedIn, via my personal channel.

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¹A little side note about the river’s name: I’m using both the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and English language names for the river. The Wolastoq, which means beautiful river, and defines the Indigenous nation that lives in its watershed, the Wolastoquik, people of the beautiful river. The Passamaquoddy-Maliseet dictionary has an audio recording to help learn how to pronounce it. As to the great Saint vs St. debate regarding the river’s English name, I defer to the Geographical Names Board of Canada, our national naming authority, which is standing firm on ‘Saint’ and Rivière Saint-Jean in French. Meanwhile a significant number of locals, including the St. John River Society, maintain it’s ‘St.’ While my heart is with the ‘St.’ lovers, my head follows CP Style, which recommends adhering to government-sanctioned names. So ‘Saint’ it is.

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