Skip to main content

Over more than four decades with Memorial University Extension Services, the Exploits Valley Regional Development Corp., and as an independent consultant on rural economic development, David Curran was consistent, articulate and ardent in his championship of rural Newfoundland and Labrador. This was not a romantic notion, but one firmly set in research and experience and deftly executed with economic and strategic planning. But it was a vision. Curran was blunt-spoken and clear-eyed, but he had ideals.

"He was a passionate advocate for rural communities but, unlike many, there was something beyond the emotion," said Ted Lomond, a provincial civil servant and executive director of the Provincial Regional Economic Development Board Association (dubbed 'the Red-Bs'). "He had ideas and he was willing to work. He possessed an originality and was quick to adopt a fighting stance where rules, policies, or just habits and inertia blocked innovative approaches."

"With hard work, there is a lot of hope for rural Newfoundland and Labrador," said Sean Power, former mayor of Buchans, which Curran help transition from a one-industry mining town. "Dave taught us that."

Curran died on June 29 at the age of 66 at home in Grand Falls-Windsor, Nfld., after suffering from pulmonary fibrosis for several years.

David William Curran was born in Gambo, Nfld., on June 22, 1945. He was one of six children, four boys and two girls, of Kathleen (née Cashin), a teacher, and Joseph Curran, a forester who served with the Forestry Unit in Scotland in the Second World War, and then worked with the provincial government.

Curran earned a BA in Sociology from MUN in 1969, and then spent a year with the provincial Department of Community and Social Development. Then he became a fieldworker with MUN Extension, a department founded in the 1960s to foster community development. "MUN Extension had a culture, and a mission, and some amazing successes, "said Rob Greenwood, director of the Harris Centre at Memorial University, who met Curran in the early 1990s when they were paired up in a federally funded program for community planning.

Local governance at the time was very weak, and MUN Extension used activist approaches like community-based fieldworkers to empower rural societies. Some of its rural development policies and initiatives, such as The Fogo Process, an innovative, community-directed filmmaking method, went global.

Between 1970 and 1977, Curran lived in Placentia, Harbour Grace and Stephenville. He then headed the fieldworker section, and would rise to assistant director, then director of the Extension Services Oil and Gas Public Education Program and finally to acting head of MUN Extension Services.

He was promoted because he was engaged and effective – not because he told people what they wanted to hear.

"He didn't soften the critical perspective," said Greenwood. "When he went to Buchans, for example, where the mine was about to close, they didn't like him [at first]. But they invited him back. They knew they needed that critical voice at the table. And he was committed to the underdog."

"I was mayor, and the mine was closing," said Power. "A fieldworker with MUN Extension who was working with a rural development group suggested a community television broadcast. So we planned for a day or so. Dave, who was acting head, came out from St. John's to tell us it couldn't happen. After getting to see Buchans he changed his mind. And it went from one day to three days, getting people information, helping them make choices."

"Buchans was not supposed to survive," said Greenwood. "It decreased in size, as has every rural community across Canada, and around the globe. But Buchans is still viable."

Curran was still acting head when MUN made the controversial decision to close Extension in 1991. Curran was unhappy with this, but, after some soul-searching, set up his own consulting firm, and was contracted to train communities in strategic planning when Greenwood "apprenticed" with him.

"In retrospect, I was being apprenticed in the techniques MUN Extension had perfected, the skill sets and best practices. We laughed our way through workshops, and yet we were vicious on time management."

Then came work as the executive director with the Exploits Valley Regional Economic Development Board. "Dave did fantastic things, not only for that district, which went from Leading Tickles to Buchans to Botwood. He was a mentor for the other 18 REDBs," said Greenwood.

Working effectively in rural Newfoundland and Labrador required an intricate blend of drive, faith and frankness. Curran was also a great believer in strategic planning, and sustainable goals.

"Our organization depended on funding agencies to support our initiatives and it would be an easy way out to apply for 'make work' projects," said Al Hawkins, mayor of Grand Falls-Windsor. These, essentially, cycled people through the UI system. Curran's standards were higher. "He believed in investment and any project that was going to receive funding would be done through a strategic plan and would provide long-term sustainability for the community. He was a strong proponent of diversifying your economy to ensure a strong future in case one sector failed."

Decision making was rooted in the community, never top-down – although reaching a consensus could be challenging.

"Dave was a skilled facilitator who brokered a lot of contentious meetings and delivered a lot of training to community-based groups," said Lomond. "He was very good at increasing the desire and ability of individuals, groups and organizations to engage in economic development activities to build on local strengths and come up with local solutions." One example was the Excite Centre in Grand Falls, an exemplar of municipal engagement in community economic development, where a partnership between a municipality and a REDB developed an investment attraction facility that brought business to the region and created employment.

"It was an innovative solution that was locally driven," said Lomond. "A lot of people look to government to solve their problems. Dave was very empowering as he advocated for local initiative. He did not just talk the talk. He got things done."

His methods were forthright and straight-shooting. "He didn't suffer fools very well," said Power. "He was extremely intelligent and extremely knowledgeable about rural issues. He was funny. And he was probably the greatest family man I've ever known."

"He had a quick wit and looked a bit like Dick Van Dyke when younger," said Lomond. "I spoke to a couple of people about Dave. Several used the word visionary, but they reminded me of was how stable he was. He never got angry and he was never depressed. He was unflappable. The composure he displayed was one of the things that made him so effective. Even when Dave was sick he worked. I mean hooked-to-oxygen sick."

Curran, a voracious reader, was also a staunch defender of the public library systems.

"His legacy, I think, will be that for those who work hard and plan well, plan the logistical side, the political side, the human resources side, and implement a strategy for rural Newfoundland, those who do that, can achieve, and will achieve," said Power.

Curran leaves his wife Diana (née Sullivan), and children Sean, Jennifer, and Amelia.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Interact with The Globe