Take courage, Atlantic Canada: Join forces and reject Harperism

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Premier Stephen McNeil grumbled about a few little things but declared himself generally satisfied with the federal budget. My heart sank. Sometimes I think we're out to prove Stephen Harper right: that we do have a "culture of defeat" on the East Coast.

The proof of it would be our official acquiescence to Harperism, one of the tenets of which is that Atlantic Canada is of no account and can be safely chucked to the sharks, but also that Maritimers in particular have a residual innocence and can still be bought.

Consider what's going on in my riding of West Nova. Cheques for tens of thousands of dollars are being dispensed with seeming wild abandon (but, no doubt, razor-sharp targeting) to selected voter groups -- the quilting club, the seniors' club, the this and that club, plus lately a half million to spruce up Yarmouth's main street.

Meanwhile, for something the region really needs -- the Yarmouth-Portland ferry -- nothing. Although as an international link it's more in federal than provincial jurisdiction, the province will be left to twist alone on the big stuff while the Harperists buy votes on the cheap.

McNeil's satisfaction was because the feds are still onside with the shipbuilding contract, and there's money for infrastructure and housing, although minimal and put off for years. But it sounded like, "Thanks for not hurting me even more."

A proper answer would have pointed out that the Harper government has not only balanced its budget (maybe) by gradually dumping costs onto the provinces, but by the same means also pumped back some $40 billion of those savings in economically useless tax cuts to big business over the decade, plus financed the pig-out of electorally targeted tax giveaways featured in this budget.

A couple of our big reports in Nova Scotia -- the Broten report on taxation and the Ivany commission on the economy -- reported on our federal government problem, which is really a Harper problem.

That is, the cutbacks started under the previous Liberal government, and some were no doubt justified, but it typically took Stephen Harper to take it to extremes -- promoting a vision of unequal provinces, with Alberta at the top. Federal health and social transfers and EI have all been torqued to that effect, leaving provinces like Nova Scotia against the wall.

The Ivany commission, in its quest to find ways forward for the Nova Scotia economy, bemoaned the lack of "a committed federal partner." It signalled the 25 per cent cut to federal jobs in Nova Scotia since the mid-1990s, while pointing out the billions lavished on the now-failing auto and oil industries in Ontario and Alberta -- investments characterized as "nation-building" by the federal government while cutbacks to primary industries in Atlantic Canada are deemed "efficiencies."

The Ivany commission wasn't asking for a return to "over-dependence" on federal transfers, but rather for the federal government to do its duty as a "partner in economic transformation," with helpful collaboration and meshed policies. But, as we know, Harper doesn't talk to provinces.

Granted, nothing of the sort can happen under Harper. But there's an election coming, and at least eventually a change in government.

Nova Scotia should be laying out a plan of approach with Ottawa for the future. Better yet, it should do this in tandem with New Brunswick now that the two provinces are meshing some policies. It should, at the very least, be putting the federal opposition leaders on the spot by asking what they'd do to help with the Yarmouth ferry, and perhaps with the $12-million-plus cost of removing the wrecked ship MV Miner on Scaterie Island off Cape Breton -- something else Ottawa refused to pay for although it's in federal jurisdiction.

One hates to call for more studies, but a full review of relations with Ottawa and prescriptions as to how they can be rebuilt when Harper is gone is in order. Better yet if the Maritimes did it together. Federal-provincial relations, destroyed by Harper, are a major part of how we function or don't function as Canadians.

Consider just a few specific issues: the fact that Harper has cut off tourism spending in the U.S. How could Ottawa and the three Maritime or four Atlantic provinces (and maybe parts of Quebec) advertise together and take full benefit of that ample market?

What about seasonal workers, now a necessity on farms and fish plants? The program has been bunged up by the Conservatives. Or the trashed Fisheries Act, that now allows chemicals deadly to fish to be used by aquaculture operations, notably by convicted polluters. A full list should be at the fingertips of the premier and other significant provincial voices during the election campaign and beyond. These voices should be prepared to gather up their courage and face up to the repairs needed after the Harper wrecking job.

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

Photo: pmwebphotos/flickr

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