Time to quit the Mickey Mouse Club

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Banding together in common purpose was once the stuff of boys’ adventure stories and early morning kids’ television programming. In the zeitgeist of popular culture, you could either be a mouseketeer or a muskateer; but never both.

It’s a little like that today in the real, hardscrabble world of Atlantic regional politics, where two distinct “groups of four” are forming to promote two competing conceptions of what it means to be a citizen of Canada’s most easterly realm.

In one corner, lately nestled along the white beaches of a certain Nova Scotia south shore resort, is the Council of Atlantic Premiers whose members seem to think that the most productive use of their time and energy is to issue stern denunciations of federal government labour market policies, and little else.

In another is the brand, spanking new “U4 League”, a group of mostly Maritime superheroes masquerading as university presidents whose initiates actually believe that the only way to improve life in this relentlessly unpromising pasture of the Great White North is to cooperate and. . .gasp! . . .get things done.

The League comprises Mount Allison University’s Robert Campbell, Acadia’s Ray Ivany, St. Francis Xavier’s Sean Riley and Bishop University’s Michael Goldbloom. Yesterday’s Globe and Mail story explains the unlikely collaboration as a marriage of virtue and necessity: “With public funding under strain and concerns about the quality of undergraduate education getting louder across Canada, the partnership is meant to get the most out of each school’s strengths.

Specifically, “The schools’ leaders aim to make it easier for students to tap the expertise of each university from their home campus, encourage faculty to work together across campuses, share ideas and find back-office savings – all without growing enrolments or eroding the intimate campus experience that is their hallmark.”

Does this suggest that these small institutions of higher learning are plotting a formal merger? Hardly. The point their head masters seem to be making is that forging closer ties – judiciously selected – will, in fact, strengthen their institutions’ individuality and independence. The approach could even cut costs without undermining the quality of the education they provide.

After all, as Mr. Goldbloom told the Globe, “At a time of limited public resources for public education, you had better be really good at what you do.” Meanwhile, added Mr. Campbell, “We’ll remain autonomous. It’s the competition that keeps us all sharp.”

Naturally, there is some tongue-in-cheekery in all of this, but there is a broadly good example to draw, as well: It has something to do with lemons and the making and serving of a tasty, refreshing drink, when one finds oneself in hot water.

Now, flash to Atlantic Canada’s sullen band of premiers, whose sole contribution to the process of transforming the region’s economy is their threadbare, bankrupt argument that bad dad Ottawa is determined to keep our seasonal workers under his hob-nailed jack boot until we run out of fish to catch or trees to cut or tourists to bed and breakfast.

Even if that were true (it is not), there’s nothing they can do about federal reforms to employment insurance or joint labour market agreements. And in their disingenuous hearts, they know this. But it’s a whole lot easier to take pot shots at the unfeeling “center”, than it is to roll up their sleeves and get down to the tough, necessary business of building, with the private sector, a competitive, durable, sustainable East Coast – one where home-grown innovation replaces tax-funded dependency in the lingua franca of the region.

The premiers’ implicit argument that changes to EI will make Atlantic Canada even less competitive than it is already relies, for its premise, on the absurd calculation that seasonal unemployment fuels economic growth.

But what, in fact, do they know about it? Which entrepreneurs have they consulted? How many full-time professionals and wage-earners have they tapped for advice lately?

The choice for Atlantic Canadians twas ever thus:

We can remain as mousketeers, or become, instead, musketeers.

Pick one; not both.

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