Atlantic Canada's perilous future in the face of a hostile federal government

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Budget time is approaching in Nova Scotia, as elsewhere. Not just any budget time, but that special variety that precedes an election (this fall, I'd guess). You can usually tell by the tension in the media/political complex. The government is preparing for the buckets of vitriol that will fall on its head when it announces that it can't balance the budget this year as promised, and there's a howl over a $27-million accounting error in last year's budget.

Here's something different we should do this time: look past the little politics and contemplate the bigger hazards looking us in the face. First, almost everybody else, notably Alberta and Ontario, is in trouble (not to mention the federal goverment and the rest of the world), and the not-particularly friendly chatter is that, in Canada, the Maritimes are in the biggest trouble of all.

For example, Liberal MP Scott Brison, in a recent speech before the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said that the Maritimes, with their debts expanding and fiscal capacity shrinking, are courting insolvency within 10 years -- and soon would find it harder to borrow. Nova Scotia in particular, where "so determined are young people to get out of the province" that in the past five years alone, the median age has risen from 42 to 44 and the over-65s risen nearly two points to 16.6 per cent.

In reporting on all this, Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson added that nothing nationally "compares to the fiscal calamity that awaits the Maritime governments," one of which could be brought closer next year as the equalization formula is up for review and "impatient taxpayers in other provinces refuse to bridge the gap."

Meanwhile, pollster Don Mills delivered a speech in Saint John that was much noted in New Brunswick, calling the Maritimes a "basket case" which is not growing, too rural, too dependent on the public sector, too complacent, has a "culture of dependence," and so on. The calls are that, at the very least, the Maritimes should be doing things in common -- common regulations, common purchasing, one electricity grid, maybe even one liquor commission, and whatever.

So, yes indeed, let's talk about all this, perhaps urgently. But let's not forget what's missing from this narrative -- the role of the federal government, which is now arguably hostile to the region and its interests.

Consider the fleeing workers. The way I understand it, this has been the very philosophy of Stephen Harper -- get those shiftless wharf-rats of the "culture of defeat" out to Alberta to do real work. That's what the assault on EI is all about -- it looks less like reform than an effort to wreck the system, punishment for our quaint centuries-long belief that fishing and farming are real industries. And the feds hover around the small-boat fishery, looking for their chance to wreck that too and hive it off to big companies, and send even more people to the tarsands. Meanwhile, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has charged that the Maritimes are getting a disproportionate amount of the federal public service cuts.

A recent news story said woods operators in eastern Nova Scotia had trouble gearing up for the re-start of the NewPage mill at Port Hawkesbury because so many woods workers had taken off. This shortage of skilled workers exists everywhere in the countryside. So while Premier Darrell Dexter pours his soul and our millions into rural jobs, federal policy is essentially working against him.

Meanwhile, retirees from elsewhere are coming here in increasing numbers, drawn by the cheap housing of our flat rural economy, raising our average age even more. No luck arguing with Ottawa that we're one country, and that should figure in our higher per capita medicare costs. Harper doesn't talk to provinces.

So, yes, let's get thinking more than we are about the hazards of the future. Not just about what we can do as Maritime provinces, but what the federal role is, or should be. And not just with regard to the Harper government, but the opposition parties as well. (Where does Brison's party stand, for example?) This is an issue that cuts to the deeper question of what Canada is all about, or should be. Harper has pursued a resource economy dominated by the tarsands that, while indeed supporting equalization, has also overvalued our dollar, harmed our manufacturing and is sucking the life out of our rural economy. And now the tarsands themselves, the centrepiece of our "energy superpower" economy, are in trouble as equivalent stuff is being found everywhere in the form of shale oil.

Meanwhile, Harper's federal-provincial policy is to have none. Is this the way it was supposed to work? It's been a good 30 years since anyone said boo to the federal government in these parts in any significant way. As the ship lurches, maybe it's time we truly asked where we're going.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was first published in the Chronicle Herald.

Photo: Alkan de Beaumont Chaglar/Flickr

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