At a conference this week in Saint John, Atlantic Canada’s business elite will be promoting closer economic integration between Atlantic Canada and the New England states. The conference, "Reaching Atlantica: Business without Boundaries," hosted by the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce, will work on a strategy to develop a regional economy that minimizes the relevance of the U.S.-Canada border.
The conference envisions reorienting the Atlantic Canadian economies towards "Atlantica," a proposed north-south international trading corridor that "runs from Buffalo, N.Y., through the Northeastern United States to Atlantic Canada." They claim that focusing on trade within this corridor would overcome the "travesty" of an east-west oriented economy that resulted from the Maritimes’ entry into Canadian Confederation.
Increasing trade between Atlantic Canada and New England seems a reasonable objective for businesses in the region, based on the geographical realities alone. But many Canadians are leery of closer integration with the U.S. They fear that closer economic integration will increasingly bind Canada to U.S. domestic and foreign policy.
Not surprisingly, the conference is attracting the attention of organizations such as the Council of Canadians, labour groups and environmentalists. They worry that the initiative is one more step toward the implementation of a corporate agenda that seeks North American integration and the erosion of Canadian social programs and sovereignty. The dominant role played in the promotion of Atlantica and the conference by big businesses – such as Aliant, Irving, Deloitte, Bank of Montreal, Emera, and by the organization they fund, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) – has only served to fuel these suspicions.
It is hard to tell what the objectives of the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce are. They seem to be sending mixed messages. On one hand, they claim to be simply talking about increasing trade within Atlantic Canada and between Atlantic Canadians and New Englanders through better transportation links, improving port facilities and linkages between businesses. These seem to be reasonable aspirations for the businesses in this region.
On the other hand, they want to encourage international trade "through the removal of barriers and harmonization of regulations." This is clearly a much bigger agenda that has broad implications for all Atlantic Canadians and which could be precedent-setting for other parts of the country.
What are perceived as barriers by some are forms of protection for others. For example, governments may have good reasons for nurturing and protecting shipbuilding or agricultural production capacity within a sustainable regional and/or national economy. Good regulations are an expression of the will of citizens in a democracy to, for example, protect workers and the environment.
Within corporate jargon, the harmonization of regulations is all too often about weakening regulations. It is inevitable, were we to embark on the broader Atlantica agenda, that governments in Atlantic Canada would face pressure from economic elites to harmonize tax policy and labour legislation, and for that matter public policy in general, with that of the U.S. Atlantica promoters have already set their sights on cutting public services, minimum wages and unionization in the region.
Let’s be realistic about what increased economic integration means. Atlantica promoters may, with good intentions, envision a regional cross-border economy; but it is rather naive to think that economic integration with the New England states can be pursued independent of the broader U.S. economy. Realistically, we are talking about situating Atlantic Canada as a supplier of raw materials, such as energy, to the U.S. and as a transportation corridor, according to the Atlantica proposal, between the European Union and the U.S.
To some degree, this is already the case with, for example, the export of oil and gas. But the broader Atlantica agenda would limit the ability of governments in Atlantic Canada to pursue alternative paths of economic development, such as through actively supporting the development of value-added processing of raw materials.
For the Irvings and Emeras of the region, the focus is ultimately on the bottom line. But a broader view is needed: What social and environmental impacts will closer economic integration have? What impact will it have on our ability to develop a sustainable and just regional economy?
I suspect that in the face of opposition, the promoters of Atlantica will argue the position that they are simply supporting increased trade opportunities. Labour, environmental and social organizations, on the other hand, will emphasize the broader implications of economic integration.
Ultimately, in order to move forward, a sustainable economic development strategy that benefits all Atlantic Canadians will have to be developed with the participation of all interests in the region, not just those of the economic elites.
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.