I suspect that few Atlantic Canadians would argue against the potential benefits of improving trade ties with our New England neighbours. So the controversy surrounding proposals for an “Atlantica” trade zone spanning Atlantic Canada and northern New England may come as a surprise.
However, a study released last week by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), argues that concerns about Atlantica are justified. “Atlantica: Myths and Reality” concludes that the economic initiative would damage the region’s social and economic prospects.
The report by lead author Scott Sinclair and me, finds that the Atlantica initiative is not primarily about enhancing trade between the New England states and the Atlantic provinces. Our study examines the two main themes that are stressed repeatedly by Atlantica proponents: a proposed Atlantica transport corridor and a parallel energy export corridor.
According to the transportation corridor plan, container ships too large to pass through the Panama Canal would sail to Halifax via the Suez Canal and the Asian goods would then be trucked across the region to markets in the U.S. Midwest.
Our report shows that the development of this corridor for “truck-trains” (huge transport trucks with two or more trailers) would have few economic benefits for the rest of the Atlantic region. The corridor highways would absorb public spending that could otherwise be used to support more diversified infrastructure throughout the region. Increased heavy-truck traffic would make the region’s roads less safe and harm the environment. Action to curb global warming through more sustainable transportation networks could turn investments in the planned corridor into a white elephant.
The Atlantica corridor agenda also faces serious practical obstacles, such as the US’s national security concerns, plans to expand the Panama Canal that would diminish the attractiveness of Halifax as a port for Asian cargo, and a sky-high US trade deficit that could also curtail its appetite for foreign goods.
Our study argues that Atlantica’s emphasis on energy exports to the U.S. doesn’t pay enough attention to Atlantic Canada’s own energy security, whether the public is getting a fair share of revenues from these publicly owned resources, or negative environmental effects. It also takes issue with Atlantica’s deregulation agenda that targets minimum wage legislation, the “high” level of unionization, and the region’s public services.
In response to these criticisms, Atlantica’s main promoter, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) appeared to back-pedal. It argued that the controversial transportation corridor was only “one tiny piece of a very large puzzle,” and downplayed its importance to the overall Atlantica strategy.
Perhaps some clarification is in order: What exactly is Atlantica?
That can be hard to tell. When confronted with serious critiques of controversial Atlantica proposals, such as the truck-train corridor, proponents shift to their fall-back position: Atlantica is just about neighbours trying to get along and improve trade opportunities. Recent media responses to our paper by Charles Cirtwill, acting president of AIMS provide an example of this.
Cirtwill claims that “Atlantica …. is actually an exercise in mental geography that ties together the American northeast with most of the Atlantic region and a portion of Quebec.” This sounds, well, interesting, albeit somewhat vague. Cirtwill’s comment that the Atlantica “region has a lot of things in common and by really working together we can take advantage of a wide range of opportunities,” doesn’t really clarify matters, but it works as a public relations exercise – who is going to argue with the basic sentiment of neighbourly co-operation and trade?
Perhaps it’s best to go to the source, the AIMS website and the provocative arguments for the Atlantica agenda put forward by its president Brian Lee Crowley. The AIMS president laid out the Atlantica “action plan” in his address to the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce conference last summer. He focused on the need to develop the transportation corridor. While noting that the corridor may provide some opportunities for export of locally produced goods, Crowley dismissed the importance of trade within the region.
According to the AIMS website, Crowley stresses that Atlantica is “not about the trade between New Brunswick and the northeastern United States, it’s about Asia and the North American heartland.” Moving Asian goods on transports trucks via Halifax through Atlantic Canada to the central US is an often repeated theme in various AIMS reports and submissions to governments.
It is difficult to separate out the ideological baggage of AIMS from the overall general Atlantica agenda being promoted by various business interests. The Atlantica website hosted by AIMS has no hesitation regarding its market fundamentalist views. It asserts that the region is held back by “policy distress” factors: our minimum wages are too high, we have too many unionized workers and too many social programs and public services.
Cirtwill claims that "You can't cherry-pick which part [of Atlantica] you want to have, you have to have all of it." This seems to be saying that to enhance trade, we have no choice but to accept truck-trains on our highways, the draining of the region’s energy resources, the environmental costs, the decreased public services, more unprotected workers, and lower minimum wages. These are serious issues that will affect citizens on both sides of the border.
According to our paper, “without a frank and open public debate, the Atlantica scheme could do serious harm. As a policy concept, therefore, it must be understood and contested.”
My hope is that our study helps open up a public debate that has to-date been confined to the likes of $600 Chamber of Commerce conferences.
John Jacobs is director of the Nova Scotia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (www.policyalternatives.ca), an independent public policy research institute. A version of this commentary was originally published in the Chronicle Herald.