Atlantic Canada needs new federal strategy as Harper shipwreck sinks

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This one touches a nerve and raises many questions, the first of which might be: How pathetic are we, both as a country and a province? The Harper government has accepted, with conditions, an environmental assessment that is one step in Shell Oil's application to drill in deep waters off Shelburne, within striking distance of the heart of Nova Scotia's number 1 export industry -- the fishery -- with a staggering three-week grace period before capping any blowout, giving it time to pollute the lucrative western fishing banks and oil to get sucked in and out of the Bay of Fundy-Gulf of Maine tidal system repeatedly.

The Americans, after their blowout disasters, now require capping equipment to be on site within 24 hours in Shell's current Alaska drilling project. Three weeks of free polluting, no matter how remote the odds of a blowout, has grabbed attention far and wide. Notably, Britain's Guardian newspaper was interested enough to point out that a member of the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board, which will make the final decision on the drilling and its conditions, was a long-time Shell employee and is arguably in a conflict of interest.

But ultimately it's not only about arm's-length boards. The McNeil government should be announcing that the proposal as such is unacceptable. If it doesn't, it's endorsing the Harper government's standing attitude -- that fishing is just a pogey scheme and that what Maritimers really need is the economic stimulation produced by red-blooded environmental destruction.

Which brings us around to a bigger picture: how we and other provinces relate to the federal government in light of Stephen Harper's shutdown of federal-provincial relations altogether. There's open warfare between Harper and several provinces. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is actually out campaigning against him. He's attacked Alberta's new NDP government as a bunch of crazy socialists, Newfoundland's premier has restated that province's standing hostility and New Brunswick's premier has taken a shot at Ottawa for his province's economic woes.

What about Nova Scotia? It's not that Premier Stephen McNeil needs to attack Harper (who will be very lucky to get even one seat in Nova Scotia anyway), but he needs to look forward, taking advantage of the election campaign to raise federal-provincial issues with the other two parties, one of which will presumably be taking over sometime. This Shell drilling would be a good place to start, followed by the demolition of the Fisheries Act that now allows open-pen salmon aquaculturists to dump even more toxic chemicals into said lucrative fishery. (Or does the McNeil government think that's a good idea?)

There's other stuff. The premier of Quebec has written all three parties asking about health funding, in light of the Parliamentary Budget Officer's report last year declaring that, under Harper's funding formula, the provinces will face a collective annual shortfall of $15 billion a year and rising because of the aging population. That affects us even more than Quebec. How about some questions there?

Or tourism. The parties are talking about putting money into increasing American tourism. How about a little help with that Yarmouth ferry problem, especially since the federal government ran the service as part of the national transportation system for some 30 years up to 1985?

The Ivany commission on Nova Scotia's economic prospects emphasized that in virtually every policy field of importance to Nova Scotia -- energy, fisheries, international trade, immigration, transportation, environment, research, workforce training, etc. -- Ottawa has an equal if not more-than-equal hand. The need is for a federal partner. Yet the trend was toward "less effective partnering."

Premier McNeil has said virtually nothing on federal matters, except that he had a wonderful relationship with Harper's Nova Scotia godfather, Peter MacKay, on immigration issues (which nevertheless didn't get him an answer from Ottawa when he inquired about Syrian refugees). In view of the locked doors in Ottawa, the provincial department of intergovernmental affairs, with a $3 million budget, concentrates on interprovincial matters and international trade. Its "statement of mandate" mentions the pursuit of "effective approaches" and "constructive dialogue" with Ottawa. Doesn't sound like much.

Meanwhile, a book published in Toronto by several academics, titled Inter-Governmental Capacity in Canada, reports that "there is a suspicion on the part of larger provinces that smaller provinces are for sale for federal dollars." Is that us -- keeping our mouths shut lest we rock the boat, thankful for anything, even a project that might devastate our largest industry?

Meanwhile, with Alberta and Saskatchewan losing steam, the question of federal equalization is bubbling up. When that happens, the tone is not usually favourable to this part of the world. As I heard one right-wing "expert" put it on TV recently, equalization is "unfortunately" going to "places like P.E.I. and Nova Scotia" which are "not productive."

Here is a challenge that I'm not sure the McNeil government -- and indeed the broader society, including media and academia -- even recognize: the need to work out a strategy to deal with Ottawa as the Harper shipwreck is hauled out.

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

Photo: Council of Atlantic Premiers. Credit: GovNL Photos/flickr

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