By Alec Bruce
As appeared on page D4


For an organization that purports to unravel the popular misconceptions that routinely choke the nation, the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) seems marvelously adept at spinning its own particular brand of the stuff.

The most recent case in point is a 44-page dossier, released last week, entitled “Atlantica: Myths and Reality”, in which the authors claim that while the concept can’t possibly succeed, it somehow poses a clear and present danger to the fabric of this region.

Atlantica, you will recall, is the proposal for greater cross-border business and trade links between New England and the Canadian East Coast, favoured by, among others, the ideologically conservative Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS) in Halifax. And to this, the politically “progressive” CCPA directs its archest condemnation: “The process is being driven by AIMS. Key elements are highly implausible. Therefore, it must be contested and dispatched to the sea like its namesake, Atlantis.”

It’s a nasty bit of reasoning, reminiscent of Soviet-era group think: Your idea won’t float, but if you bring it up again, we have an anchor with your name on it.

Although it warms the cockles of my cold, ironic heart to see a left-of-center think tank make dissidents out of its right-wing counterparts, there are larger issues at stake – not the least of which is the curious absence of moderate voices in a debate that’s rapidly becoming hysterical.

Consider, for example, the CCPA’s take on the Atlantican vision of transportation in the dark years ahead: “Supporters envisage Halifax as the gateway for a high-volume roadway along which super-sized ‘truck-trains’ would haul Asian goods to the U.S. mid-west. Halifax is the eastern seaboard’s closest deep-water port to Asia for container ships that are too large to pass through the Panama Canal. Attracting these leviathans, and trucking their cargo to U.S. markets, is the centerpiece of the Atlantica strategy.”

If that image of a dystopian future fails to alarm, here’s what the Centre says about the Atlantica energy corridor: “This is driven by U.S. energy concerns, but gives little thought to Atlantic Canadians’ future energy needs. Despite being a major energy exporter, Atlantic Canada imports 90 per cent of the oil consumed within the region. In the event of a crisis, such as a hurricane, or of a longer-term shortage, the infrastructure needed to supply natural gas throughout the region is not even in place.”

There are so many red herrings and straw men in these arguments, I hardly know whether to cut bait or make hay. So I’ll take a shot at both.

The dreaded “Atlantican transportation agenda” is less agenda than wishful thinking. And, to be frank, it’s not even very interesting thinking. It involves bilateral lobbying for funds to build a new highway connecting southwestern New Brunswick with upstate New York. The proposal is dramatic only in the sense that this area remains the sole link between the two nations that is not already extensively laced with international corridors. If anything, Atlantica lags, not leads, transportation policy on both sides of the border.

As for energy, Atlantic Canada does import almost all of the oil it consumes. So does New England, Ontario, British Columbia and two-dozen other North American jurisdictions for the obvious reason that they are not blessed (or cursed) with natural reserves of their own. What, though, does this have to do with Atlantica?

In fact, the development of renewable sources of energy, and the green technologies to support long-term sustainability, only serves the cause of regional self-determination.

Still, the rebuttal is moot since the CCPA concedes that few, if any, of its direst predictions will ever come to pass. Regulatory frameworks are too well entrenched. Border controls are stricter now than at practically any other time in history. And cultural warriors – from the right-wing American talking head Lou Dobbs, to the left-wing Canadian activist Maude Barlow – continue to keep their knives sharp and fangs long in the event that the rest of us suddenly forget what’s good for us.

But to be safe, the CCPA report concludes that “awareness of Atlantica – and the threat it poses – must spread beyond the exclusive, elite circles that have deftly managed the issue to date . . . This would expose the not-so-hidden, right-wing social policy agenda that underpins it.”

Or, perhaps, the paranoiac blithering of other traffickers in popular misconceptions.