Tuning out our insular attitudes

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In the time-honored practice of central Canadian commentary about what’s ruining the economically flaccid East Coast, only one thing’s more annoying to a Maritimer than a diatribe that manages to get it completely wrong.

And that’s one that manages to get it utterly right.

Globe and Mail writer-at-large John Ibbitson’s lengthy piece, entitled “The incredible shrinking region”, in that newspaper’s Focus section last Saturday, left me with the urge both to pat him on the back and punch him in the nose.

That, in an odd way, is his point.

“Disaster looms unless Maritimers work together to reverse the slide – and, in some respects, adjust their thinking,” Mr. Ibbitson writes.

Quoting University of Prince Edward Island political scientist Peter McKenna, he observes that “the Maritimes enjoy strong social cohesion. . .‘You don’t get that sharp polarization’ between left and right seen elsewhere in Canada. But there is also a downside: ‘a particular resistance to change.’”

University of Moncton economist Donald Savoie concurs and believes he knows what’s behind Atlantic Canadian intractability. “Our region, more than any other. . .remains rural,” he tells Mr. Ibbitson. “New ideas and thinking usually come from urban areas, which are home to universities, innovation and less social and religious pressure.” Crucially, though, Mr. Savoie says, “Our region also lacks the energy, entrepreneurial spirit and the desire for a fresh start that new Canadians bring.”

Ouch, indeed!

Is there a solution? Mr. Ibbitson and the men and women he interviewed for his story like to think so.

First, stop looking to Ottawa for bandaids. Governing politicos and their bureaucratic factotums there couldn’t care less about us.

Second, make sure that the Atlantic region’s private enterprisers are actually equipped to grow their various provincial economies.

Third, acknowledge that urban, not rural, centers are where the true action occurs. (A place like Greater Moncton, for example, already seeds southeastern New Brunswick’s villages and hamlets with far more economic capacity than they can, and do, account for on their own).

Fourth, create a single, inter-provincial trade zone in the Maritimes where modern – not archaic – principles of commerce encourage productive collaboration on government procurement, labour mobility and skills and professional accreditation.

Fifth, and finally, attract and retain immigrants. Lots of them.

As perspicacious as Mr. Ibbitson’s piece is, he is not the first (nor will he be the last) to imagine that these measures are long-term solutions to Maritime malaise.

The enduring problem in this part of Canada, however, has never been understanding the dimension of our collective economic difficulty, or even crafting handy steps to resolve it. The problem has been that we’ve never really wanted to confront any challenge that extends beyond our individual front doors or back fences.

The real conundrum here is not the fiscal morass that besets our governments or the associated demographic perils of low birth rates, aging producers and accelerating outmigration. The real peril is that though we know well what to do with ourselves, we simply choose to do precisely nothing.

In fairness to us, this is not a pathology exclusive to the Maritimes. “Head-in-the-sanditis” is now rampant in Toronto, Vancouver and Alberta, where home-buyers still leverage their futures against absurdly overpriced shacks on the wholly discredited notion that the status quo in human affairs is, somehow, an immutable law of nature.

It isn’t, and we on the East Coast should know this better than anyone in the country. More’s the pity, and the shame.

What is ruining the economically flaccid East Coast? It’s not central Canadian commentators. It’s not even Stephen Harper.

It’s just us. It has always been just us.

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