There have been times in the storied history of the Atlantic region when meaningless, self-destructive, icy battles over trade, skills and labour mobility between and among the provinces have almost melted away under the warming sun of common sense. But those times have been rare.
Prior to Confederation, a century-and-a-half ago, Maritime political leaders gathered in Charlottetown, originally to consider establishing a united, regional economy. Then, of course, certain Upper Canadians, led by John A. Macdonald, crashed the party and rewrote the agenda. Suddenly, the urgent conversation was about creating a bi-coastal nation (without, at that time, a railway to connect is disparate bits).
How’s that for vision?
How’s ours on the East Coast in the second decade of the 21st Century?
We might just remember an almost-concerted effort to forge closer, more efficacious economic ties, leading to some sort of durable political union among Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island in the mid-1960s. But as the counter-argument went at the time, “Where would we put the capital?”
Twenty years later, the debate flared again. This time, though, the political class in this part of Canada had no appetite for the concepts of either economic or political union; for they had become too complacent, too inculcated in the status quo thanks to decades of federal government welfare (transfers) to prop up their perpetually underperforming public accounts.
Now, when the rest of Canada reflects on us, it conjures a region of people wise in the ways of the sea, determined to give the shirts off our backs, willing to throw down a kitchen party. This, it seems, is the stereotype we gladly proffer in return for free money from other parts of the country. As long as Ontario and Quebec can laugh their rumps off at our expense, we court jesters can count on a cheque in the mail.
Again, how’s that vision thing going for us?
Each year or so, Atlantic Canada’s provincial premiers and their mandarins gather in capital cities around the region to consider how best to work together, how marvellously they may transform their tiny economies into what they have recently termed a “global force” of growth. At the same time, they just can’t seem to figure out how to rationalize the rules concerning the transfer of honeybees and booze across their provincial borders.
This small collection of principalities remains one of the most economically divided of any in the developed world. We make it virtually impossible, in this region, for university students to transfer their credits from one institution to another; for skilled tradesmen and women to find meaningful work if they choose to leave the jurisdiction in which they received their accreditations; for doctors, lawyers and veterinarians to move between provinces without first obtaining professional papers proving that the practices of law and medicine are, somehow, locally relevant and compliant.
Certainly, each Atlantic province must develop its own vision for economic and social security, And, indisputably, each jurisdiction should maintain the right and responsibility to protect and preserve its cultural heterogeneity.
But do these priorities obviate the common sense in pursuing the stock of our common story along the East Coast?
Should we continue to ignore the fact that the tales and travails that unite us are richer than those that currently divide us?
Shouldn’t this propel us to write the next chapter of a region that embraces its constituents as members of the same extended family of social, economic and political players?
All we need is the vision.
Once again, always again, let’s have that now.