If the federal government hasn’t yet embraced a vision for the Atlantic gateway, that’s because there isn’t one, Charles Cirtwill says.
The president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies says questions Prime Minister Stephen Harper reportedly raised to regional leaders in recent months about the gateway’s markets and strategy are bang on.
“We do not have a focused vision yet,” Cirtwill said. “To date, we are too disparate and too parochial in our vision about what the gateway can be,” he said.
“The last public strategy document I saw was an amalgamation of (funding) wish lists.”
The Atlantic gateway is a term used to describe the region’s network of air, rail, marine and road freight transportation.
Cirtwill said Harper understands the status of the Atlantic gateway if he shares the executive’s views, “that we’re still lacking in a singular focus, that we’re not entirely sure where our markets are, what our strengths are or what we’re playing to, and that we’re still spending a lot of time cutting each others’ throats “_”
Cirtwill responded in an interview about the future of the gateway after the executive director of the Atlantic Gateway Advisory Council, David Oxner, told an audience in Moncton this week that Harper has repeatedly raised questions about the concept.
Oxner, on a panel discussion about the economic future of Atlantic Canada at a federal Liberal party-sponsored event Monday, said Harper brought up questions about the Atlantic gateway with Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter when the Bluenose premier was first elected last year.
Last December, Dexter told the Halifax Chronicle-Herald that when he lobbied Harper for more gateway funding, the prime minister said he hadn’t seen the same clarity from Atlantic gateway proponents on where cargo was coming from, how it would get to market and who their customers were, in comparison to those behind the Asia-Pacific gateway on Canada’s West Coast.
And in a closed-door economic roundtable in Saint John last month, the prime minister raised questions about the gateway, again, Oxner said.
In a statement, Sara MacIntyre of the Prime Minister’s Office said Harper is fully supportive and understands the Atlantic region plays a vital role in Canada’s economy. Oxner, who works with 13 business and academic leaders across the region through an advisory group formed last February, lamented that Ottawa has yet to approve a federal-provincial Atlantic gateway strategy document that has been prepared, though it was supposed to come into effect last October.
In an interview Tuesday, Oxner said he takes Harper’s questions as an indication the prime minister is interested in the Atlantic gateway.
“We’re taking it as an opportunity to answer any questions that he or anybody else have and to make sure people do understand the role of Atlantic Canada ports and airports in the economic wellbeing of Canada,” Oxner said.
Cirtwill said it matters if Harper is not fully convinced of the merits of the Atlantic gateway, when it comes to attracting money from Ottawa.
“It shouldn’t but it will, primarily because most of the proponents of the gateway now define success of the gateway as the biggest federal cheque possible,” Cirtwill said.
“It shouldn’t matter at all.”
Cirtwill said Atlantic Canada does not have the same transportation bottlenecks the West Coast has faced, and gateway advocates should focus more on marketing the region as a trade corridor to shipping companies, manufacturers and the like, rather than trying to get funding for projects under the $2.1-billion federal Gateways and Border Crossings Fund.
“We’ve wasted the last two years chasing our fair share of the $2.1 billion,” Cirtwill said.