Born and raised on the northern edge of Acadian New Brunswick, Mark Ramsay is an unapologetic hometown boy. Campbellton, in his view, is one of the great undiscovered places to live in Canada.
“It’s a hidden gem,” says Ramsay, while he directs traffic at the annual Terry Fox Walk/Run being held at Sugarloaf Mountain Provincial Park, where he is assistant manager. “We live in a beautiful area.”
Beautiful, yes, but an area that has faced some of the same economic challenges that many cities and towns in the Atlantic Region have had to deal with. Once a thriving industrial town with more than 12,000 residents, a series of economic blows have hit the community hard. They include major cutbacks at the Intercolonial Railway (a CN division), and the closing (followed by partial reopening) of the mill in the adjacent village of Atholville that provided hundreds of jobs.
When the Intercontinental Railway was reorganized in the mid-1970s, nearly 1,200 jobs were lost, and many families left the area in search of employment elsewhere. Compounding the economic malaise was the on-again, off-again fortunes of the paper mill. With the forestry sector also experiencing a downturn, it is estimated $50 million was lost from the payroll.
With the economy staggering, the population in Campbellton has diminished to about 6,600 people today.
“Our region took a beating in the 1970s,” Ramsay concedes.
Senior governments have helped ease the transition somewhat, but Ramsay is critical of their handout approach. “When I was mayor I used to tell the government, “Don’t just give us money and walk away.’”
Yet none of those challenges change the way Ramsay feels about the community, which sits on the banks for the Restigouche River, an internationally known salmon sport fishery.
Over the years, Ramsay has walked the talk on town boosterism. He was first elected to city council in 1999 and began two terms as mayor in 2001 (ending in 2008). He and his wife also raised a family of three, and now have three grandchildren.
Among the highlights of his time in office was seeing the city host the Canada Winter Games in 2003. They legacy of seeing the city in the national spotlight endured for years. After the games, he travelled to Whitehorse on city business, and was hosted at a special dinner by the mayor in that northern city.
One of the legacies of the beautiful Sugarloaf park is a multi-purpose sports park that features a small ski hill, a campground, mountain bike trails and hiking opportunities. Ramsay notes it takes just two minutes to reach the ski hill from town and annual park passes are just $250.
A ski hill in New Brunswick? I ask. “We get 15 feet of snow here, naturally,” Ramsay replies.
After running a fishing camp for several years, Ramsay began worked for New Brunswick Tourism in 2005. Since then, he’s taken on the role at Sugarloaf. It’s a job that keeps in the spotlight in the town small enough that everyone knows each other by first name.
Keeping that profile up leaves open of the option of returning to local politics.
“I really enjoyed my time there (on council),” he says., “I might consider running again when I retire. I’ll turn 58 in two weeks.”
In the meantime, he’ll just continue to enjoy this place he has called home his whole life.
“I love the outdoors. We live in a beautiful area,” he says.
I ask what is the one thing he would tell people about why he stays in Cambellton.
“It’s the people,” he says without hesitation. “We live here because we want to live here. We have the best of both worlds.”