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Letter: A proposal for region building in Atlantic Canada

Published on May 9, 2017

Sure, it seemed old-fashioned. When Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil visited the province’s lieutenant-governor on April 30 to trigger a May 30 general election, he was the last provincial or federal politician in Canada with the power to do so purely on his own accord.

As if too much spontaneity was the problem discouraging us all to vote, legislated voting dates have taken some of the fun out of Canadian politics without producing any great revival of democratic engagement. An unintended byproduct has been a move to interminable, American-style campaigning that leads in to the official writ period.
Refreshingly, the province that celebrates itself as the birthplace of parliamentary democracy in Canada is the only one left in the country that hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon of legislated election dates.
But wait! That Nova Scotia hasn’t yet given in to the trend of fixed election dates may yet present an opportunity to build a more formal foundation for meaningful co-operation across Atlantic Canada.
The recent release of 2016 census numbers is the latest grim reminder that massive change is needed to stem the tide of the sinking economic, fiscal and demographic metrics afflicting the entire region. The brand of region-building projects needed to turn things around in the east are the same types of major projects that most governments aren’t comfortable undertaking when there is an election waiting around the corner. And the problem in Atlantic Canada is that there is always an election waiting around the corner.
With four election cycles in play at all times, it leaves only a few limited windows of opportunity to strike big, game-changing partnerships and initiatives, the kind Atlantic Canada needs today to reset its economic, fiscal and demographic course. One practical way to widen that window of opportunity would be to finally establish a fixed election date in Nova Scotia and align it and the election dates of each other Atlantic province.
This would move voters, and their leaders, to the same political tide clock, one that can serve as a platform to improve the lives of the 2.3 million people who call Canada’s East Coast home.
In Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, the idea of forming a Maritime Union is indeed as old as Canada itself. The Fathers of Confederation hijacked the idea and stretched it west. Now, why can’t the idea be reclaimed, re-engineered and stretched eastward from the Appalachian range into the North Atlantic?
Proponents of a formal union of Maritime or Atlantic provinces make many compelling points, but it is terribly unlikely it will gain any traction before it is too late.
Alternatively, a co-ordinated election date would not only address the issue of political hibernation around campaign and pre-campaign countdowns, it would also provide the opportunity to present voters across the region with referenda on major questions, such as governance of utilities, Crown corporations and new policy positions on internal and foreign trade, labour and immigration.
Think of how common election mandates might embolden premiers to work together to establish positions on urgent matters like softwood lumber tariffs, the renegotiation of NAFTA and changes to resource rules like fishing quotas.
By working together more formally and creatively, Atlantic Canada can move in the polar-opposite direction of the go-it-alone zeitgeist that has propelled Brexit and Trump-brand politics, and build a collective strength that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Of course, political parties will argue there is already plenty of co-operation going on between the provinces, but that is mostly when co-operation is convenient. Political convenience on really big, important issues is too rare to count on. In Atlantic Canada, premiers share an undeniably genuine desire to improve life in their home provinces, but they also share an equally genuine desire to be re-elected. These two genuine desires don’t interfere with each other in and of themselves, but when it comes to working together on big ideas and initiatives across provincial lines, the timing of elections are getting in the way of transformative action.

The recent release of 2016 census numbers is the latest grim reminder that massive change is needed to stem the tide of the sinking economic, fiscal and demographic metrics afflicting the entire region.

Jesse Robichaud is a consultant at Ensight Canada, a public affairs firm in Ottawa.