by Brian Lee Crowley

Not since Bill Clinton and the U.S. Congress clashed over what the word “is” meant has one little word been the source of such confusion and conflict.

The word is “Atlantica”.

Listen to über-nationalist Maude Barlow and her friends at the Council of Canadians, and you’d think it was the equivalent of crying “Praise the Devil” at a revival meeting. Atlantica is “free trade on steroids”, and a secret agenda to drag local wages down to Third World levels while handing over millions in profits to rapacious capitalists.

Such tales of bogeymen told around the campfire may send a comradely shiver up the spine of youngsters at the Leon Trotsky Memorial Summer Camp for Future Agit-Prop Professionals. They have nothing to do, however, with life on Planet Earth.

Atlantica is just the name that many of us are now giving to the natural economic region that straddles the border between Quebec and the Maritimes on the one hand, and northern New England and upstate New York on the other. Atlantica is about forging alliances with our neighbours to improve infrastructure and build the contacts that will allow us to combat together our common scourges of high unemployment, high out-migration and low incomes.

Is Atlantica turbo-charged free trade? Well, we could use a bit more free trade around here. Statistics Canada recently pointed out Atlantic Canada has taken less advantage of the opportunities offered by NAFTA than many other regions of the country. Free trade underpins the country’s prosperity, especially since one half of everything we produce in Canada’s private sector is exported, the vast bulk of it to the United States.

All along the Canada-US border, the regions that host major trade conduits between our two countries are waking up to the need to manage these corridors, and that means building new local relationships and institutions.

The other corridors, such as Montreal-New York, or southern Ontario-Michigan, exist primarily to exchange goods and services produced in our two countries. But Atlantica is different because the trade generated within the region is relatively small. The exchanges between Vermont and Nova Scotia or New Hampshire and Newfoundland are hardly worth mentioning.

But we are about to become a major doorway for the trade between Asia and the North American heartland. It is not so much the products of Atlantica that are straining to cross the border, but the industrial might of China, India and the Asian Tigers. West coast ports are choked with these new goods. The giant ships carrying this burgeoning cargo have reached the point where they can no longer pass through the Panama Canal to reach east coast ports and must instead borrow the Suez Canal. That puts Atlantica in a strategic position as a deepwater wharf jutting into the North Atlantic, not merely the closest North American port of call from Europe, Turkey and Asia via the Suez, but also the closest major port of call from Africa and the major ports of Brazil and Argentina.

It is a great story and a great opportunity, but we’re not alone in trying to capitalize on it. The Port of New York-New Jersey, for instance, plans to spend a cool US$3.4 billion to capture this new trade. But for a variety of reasons, they’ll still need Atlantica to bear some of the burden of moving this new trade to market.

Montreal is also tied to Atlantica. The St. Lawrence is too shallow to handle the big ships. Without Atlantica, Montreal, and its wonderful infrastructure endowment of railways, highways and the entrance to the St. Lawrence Seaway, will be cut off from this new opening on the world trading system.

We represent eastern Canada’s only opportunity to participate in the trade carried on the giant ships from Asia. Without us, that trade will by-pass eastern Canada altogether, and head for New York and other US ports to the south. But we have our work cut out for us.

As Charlie McMillan, a Maritimer and professor of international business at York University argued just the other day, Atlantic Canada needs an Asian strategy. He’s right, but what should it look like? The model is our offshore gas and the pipeline that traverses our region to bring it to market in New England.

Without our American friends, we would never have been able to develop the gas. They paid the freight for the exploration, development and pipeline construction that we never could have afforded alone, and along the way created opportunities for us, such as the LNG terminal that will cement Saint John’s position as an energy hub.

Our Asian strategy similarly must recognize that the infrastructure and open borders we need to make the Asian trade flow can only come from building coalitions of shared interest with our neighbours just over the line. That’s what Atlantica should mean to each and every one of us.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (www.aims.ca), a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: BrianLeeCrowley@AIMS.ca