By Charles Fournier
Francis McGuire, member of New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham’s Self-Sufficiency Task Force, startled the people of New Brunswick with his views on the future development of this Province. With emphasis on allowing rural communities to depopulate and commercial development as the economic engine in the cities, his vision touched off a visceral reaction among New Brunswickers. It was almost as if he had declared a whole way of life obsolete. Families who have made their living by directly interacting with the land and forest for generations were forced to face the possibility that their children may not be able to do the same, even if they want to. The realities facing the future of New Brunswick and the larger Atlantic Provinces are stark: young people leave for opportunity elsewhere, mills are closing, resource depletion and an environment that is getting more and more loaded with pollutants. All of these trends call for action. The region and it’s people have to reverse this course if we are to offer a decent life for future generations. Mr. McGuire’s solution is either to do nothing or work to accelerate these trends. Allowing rural communities to depopulate is a solution to the crisis in our forest industry that takes no effort at all. Interestingly enough, even though the government will swear that he is independent and doesn’t represent their views, McGuire is not alone in his thinking. Donald Savoie, an academic and chair of Shawn Graham’s transition team, has publicly expressed similar views. When releasing his latest book entitled Visiting Grandchildren: Economic Development in the Maritimes (2006), Savoie argued that Employment Insurance be curtailed, that rural villages be closed, and that Maritimers need to lower their salary expectations. He also argued that corporate tax be eliminated, minimum wage and social assistance rates be lowered and that the NAFTA free trade regime be made “Freer.” While these two economic and political brain trusts of the Liberal Party and business elite maintain that their prescriptions would be of great benefit to corporations, they fail to elaborate on the effect they will have on the majority of people who work for a living. If these policies are followed through with, the conditions would be set for a mass exodus from the Province. In the north of New Brunswick, one could be forgiven for calling it a second Acadian expulsion. The uprooting of families from the land, decline in standard of living and wholesale destruction of rural life would bear an immense toll on the majority of people in New Brunswick. To compound the plight of these displaced and immiserated future generations, they would not be able to count on the government for help the as programs that could assist them through this transition would be gutted. The central piece of infrastructure to McGuire’s vision is the four lane highway. This would make Miramichi a suburb of Moncton and allow commerce and trade to flow from the port of Halifax to the US border. To get a bigger picture of what is being proposed, one needs to look no further than the Halifax based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS). This big business think tank, funded and supported by members of the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce, has put forth its vision of “Atlantica” which incorporates all of above proposals along with larger and more ominous dimensions. Brian Lee Crowley, president and chief spokesperson for AIMS, would like to see the Atlantic Provinces (with the exception of Labrador), Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, upstate New York and parts of Quebec folded in to one consistent economic region called “Atlantica.” Under this new regime, Atlantic Canada’s infrastructure would be oriented towards exporting energy and moving goods produced in central Asia through the Halifax port to major centres in the US. Implementation of this plan would require reconfiguring the port of Halifax to handle post-Panamax sized freighters (double the size of existing ships) and outfitting the highway between Halifax and the US border to handle “Truck Trains,” which can be up to 130 feet long, posing a grave safety hazard to drivers in smaller vehicles. Parallel to this, “Atlantica” would transform Saint John into an “Energy Hub” geared towards exporting electricity, natural gas and petroleum to the northeastern United States. While this may result in modest employment growth in the short term, in the long term it will be an environmental catastrophe and create an economy acutely vulnerable to market energy prices, the hardening of the US border, and strategic resource depletion.
What is missing from this vision is production?
“Atlantica” offers nothing for the manufacturing sector or the traditional resource-based economic activity that has been the backbone of the region’s economy for generations. The only foreseeable permanent job growth will be for truck drivers and a small cadre of elite professionals in the energy sector. Brian Lee Crowley has admitted that the jobs created by the “Atlantica” regime would be so undesirable that the Atlantic Provinces will have to implement a guest worker program to import workers who are accustomed to lower standards. What underlies these proposals is the fundamental belief that the free market and private enterprise are better than all other economic arrangements in almost all circumstances. There is plenty of evidence to disprove this. The World Economic Forum ranks Finland and Sweden as the first and third most competitive economies in the world. Ironically these two countries have some of the highest tax rates and more public spending per capita in the world. It is important to remember that while this vision has influential backers with deep pockets, it is just one option available to New Brunswick and most people who work for a living do not support it. We do not have to submit to these free market fundamentalists. The people of New Brunswick and the larger Atlantic Provinces have the power to shape their own future. The biggest question facing the future is whether this power will be used.
/Charles Fournier is a resident of Fredericton, New Brunswick, a graduate of UNB, as well as a local activist and politician. Charles is a founding member of the Citizens’ Against Atlantica caucus and the Fredericton Social Network./