In the National Post, AIMS policy analyst Jackson Doughart argues that the Maritime custom of saying that foreign-born people “come from away” is a product of the provinces’ poor economies and mistrust of Upper Canada. To soften the region’s “parochial edge,” governments must adopt pro-growth policies to counter worrying demography. Read the piece on the National Post website. This article also appears in the Telegraph-Journal and the Charlottetown Guardian.
The Maritimes can be a tough place to fit in. Of course, this is true of almost any place outside of Canada’s big cities. But here, locals have a name for those who settle from elsewhere – we say that they “come from away.”
President of Treasury Board and Nova Scotia Member of Parliament Scott Brison hopes to change this tradition. According to a CBC News story, Mr. Brison thinks that the “come from away” label should be banned from our vocabulary.
“It’s in our collective interest, economically and socially, to not use terms that reflect a negative view of people who choose to make Atlantic Canada their home,” he said last week.
Wariness of non-locals is not a pretty part of east coast culture. I know this first-hand because my mother, who hails from Manitoba, is constantly told that she is “not from here.” She has lived on Prince Edward Island for almost 30 years.
This attitude is hardly unique to Atlantic Canada. Read Alice Munro or Raymond Carver and you’ll see that provincialism is a feature of small, rural places everywhere. And whatever contempt Maritimers may reserve for Upper Canada – yes, we still call Ontario this – we tend to be equally suspicious of non-local Maritimers.
Nevertheless, Minister Brison is mistaking the effect for the cause by thinking that Atlantic Canada’s stagnant economies can be blamed on suspicion of “the other.” Rather, this attitude toward outsiders comes from a slow economy, a lack of opportunity, and a cycle of dependency on government.
We come by this bias honestly. Before joining Confederation, the Maritime provinces were wealthy, self-reliant colonies. After people from Ontario convinced us to join the Dominion project – largely as a way for them to offload debts and dilute the political strength of the French-Canadians – the subsequent “national policy” of high tariffs damaged our economies, from which we’ve never recovered. In sum, the Maritime political culture emanates strongly from a historical mistrust of the feds.
Unlike other regions of the country, the Maritimes have never had an economic boom since Confederation. Instead, advances in living standards have occurred through subsidies and transfers from the rest of the country. Economic development, by contrast, would allow the region to catch up with Central Canada. Economists call this convergence, and we’ve witnessed it in the West.
Not that Minister Brison doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In a 2013 speech to the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, he described the region’s economic situation as reaching a tipping point. He criticized the regulatory burden between the provinces and cautioned about our deteriorating financial health:
“If you combine our share of the federal debt with our provincial debt as a percentage of our GDP, our fiscal situation is about as dire as that of European economies like Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain just before they hit the tipping point.”
Our policy traditions and government institutions – which are generations old and transect party lines – stand in the way of improving the region’s fortunes. Large public sectors monopolize talent, burden taxpayers, and skew wage expectations against the private sector. Patronage politics limit competition and entrench corporate welfare. Generous EI benefits subsidize unemployment and create absurd labour shortages.
The surest way out of the region’s mess is to grow industries, such as manufacturing and technology, that are not geography-dependent. By substantially lowering taxes and ending the subsidy game, the provinces would provoke more trade and production, attract and retain more workers, and fuel outside investment and employment. Lifting moratoria on hydraulic fracturing would enable us to benefit from resource development as British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan have done.
But these policies aren’t tried because the public services upon which Maritimers depend are so financially stretched. As such, there is a great short-term political cost for any provincial government in opening its jurisdiction for business, compared with maintaining the status quo. And for Ottawa, it is easier to send money to Atlantic Canada than to reform failed policies and treat us like other provinces.
The consequence is that more residents choose to leave for opportunities elsewhere. In turn, outmigration puts greater pressure on those who remain to keep things afloat. Ultimately, the way we live here is not sustainable.
Better policies would encourage better immigrant retention and reverse outmigration. They might also make Maritimers more amenable to the presence of outsiders. When the proverbial economic pie grows, sharing with perceived foreigners doesn’t seem so bad.
Minister Brison is right: Atlantic Canadians could stand to be more welcoming. But only by creating more opportunity for flourishing will the parochial edge of the east coast soften. And for this to happen, the Maritimes need a better economy.