Long decades from now, researchers somewhere will find a Feb. 8, 1977, front page from the Guardian in Charlottetown and scratch their heads. They will look at the screaming main headline — Premiers Okay Maritime Union — and read the lead: “In a secret meeting late last night, the three Maritime premiers agreed to unite Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into a single province to be known as Maritima, the Guardian has learned.”
Then they will scan down the page to learn that Prince Edward Island’s Alex Campbell was the first premier of Maritima. And that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was reported to have reacted to the news with a characteristic shrug.
They will read that a Cape Breton judge told a Guardian telephone survey that the new provincial capital should be “Gabaras.”
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They will also discover that a Progressive Conservative MP, who wanted to remain anonymous, was worried that the new arrangement would mean that P.E.I.’s ferries would lose their federal subsidies since they no longer operated between provinces.
At that point, the reader might be as puzzled as Nova Scotia premier Gerald Regan and his New Brunswick counterpart, Richard Hatfield, were when they looked at that front page in their respective Charlottetown hotel rooms 36 years ago.
Back in 1977, across town in his Charlottetown office, their host was laughing.
The previous night, while Hatfield and Regan caught a Stompin’ Tom Connors show, Campbell, the P.E.I. premier, joined some staffers from the Council of Maritime Premiers at the Charlottetown Hotel.
They got to talking. Somehow the subject turned to Maritime union.
“The conversation eventually turned to what-if scenarios,” Campbell recalled via email recently, “and before long, a scribe began recording our most absurd predictions of what the new Province of Maritima might look like.”
Campbell called a friend at the Guardian. The next morning, the mock newspapers were delivered to Regan’s and Hatfield’s hotel rooms. To their credit, the visiting leaders sat down at breakfast as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. But later in the day, Campbell recalls, they shared a few yuks about the gag.
Well, the Guardian front page is still funny. Except now it is funny in an absurd, Waiting for Godot kind of way. The truth is that after a century and a half of workshopping the idea of political union between the three Maritime provinces, little has changed.
We have been weighing the arguments for Maritime union since 1864, when a conference to consider the question was organized for Charlottetown.
As history shows, the bigger question of uniting all of British North America took centre stage at the Charlottetown Conference. But the rationale for a closer relationship among three adjacent provinces facing similar demographic, political and economic challenges has never gone away.
In 1970, the Deutsch Commission, sponsored by the three provincial governments, came right out and advocated not only greater Maritime co-operation, but also, eventually, full political union.
Wade MacLauchlan, the former University of Prince Edward Island president who is working on a political biography of Campbell, calls the period after the Deutsch report “a high-water mark for regional collaborative initiatives” such as the Atlantic Police Academy, the Council of Maritime Premiers and the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission.
The idea of political union fizzled, though.
“It is fair to say that neither Regan, Hatfield or I, at any time, espoused the concept of political union,” Campbell says.
Outside of the mocked-up Guardian front page, in fact, the closest that Maritime union ever came to reality was probably a long-ago committee of MLAs who considered — then abandoned — holding a legislative session for the hypothetical political entity. Which, frankly, is weird, because suddenly it sounds like it is 1864 all over again.
The arguments for getting rid of the most egregious trade barriers in the region have never been more compelling.
Consider one of the most basic necessities of life: milk.
Minimum retail liquid milk prices are set by the governments in all three provinces. At the same time, milk produced in one province can’t be sold in another.
You don’t have to be working for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies to conclude that too much needless effort is expanded to perpetuate a system that does the consumer no good. Or that there are countless economic and political ways that Maritimers would benefit from any movement toward more regional co-operation.
Generating most of the pro-union noise are three Maritime senators who have launched a campaign to once again get the provinces talking about full-on political union. Their enthusiasm for the idea is such that a poll showing that barely one-quarter of Maritimers like the idea is reason for joy rather than despair.
It is not just Tories either. Pro-everything-Nova Scotian Alexa McDonough can’t bring herself to advocate something that would erase her home province’s identity. Nonetheless, the former MLA, parliamentarian and leader of the federal New Democratic Party says “we would all do better if there was more co-operation.”
Prominent Moncton academic Donald Savoie thinks the only way Martime union will ever happen is if provincial politicians are forced by some catastrophic event — declining federal transfer payments anyone? — to throw their lot together.
For his part, Kings-Hants Liberal MP Scott Brison thinks the idea of political union distracts from the real issue: closer economic co-operation among the three provinces.
“There are more trade barriers between the three provinces than there are between Canada and Chile,” says Brison, who points to the New West Partnership Trade Agreement, signed by British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, as an example of provinces working together to build a stronger regional economy.
Yet everybody seems to agree on one thing: 150 years of yakking is enough. The perfect storm of economic and demographic forces bearing down on this region means the time for forging some kind of new relationship is now. As in yesterday.
“There is core support out there,” says Sen. Stephen Greene, a Conservative who represents Halifax. “People understand what the benefits would be, and it won’t take much to move those numbers to 50 per cent and beyond.”
Which is why we at Herald Magazine have decided to cut right to the chase. If our provincial politicians aren’t willing to give Maritime union real thought — Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, for instance, calls it a unrealistic — we are.
Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the Maritimes.
Think of a place nearly two million people strong. A single province — suddenly the fifth most populous in the land — with new-found political and economic clout. A community with a common geography, history, ethos and economy. A people — in the words of Liberal senator Jim Cowan of Nova Scotia — “with much more in common than separating us.”
Our readers had no problem finding ties that bind. Call the new entity Atlantica, Acadia or Paradise, some of them responded when we asked them for their opinion recently. Some even agreed with us that the super-province should go by the Maritimes, since that is what the rest of Canada calls us anyway.
We, frankly, don’t have a strong opinion on what the licence plate for the new entity should read. So we were overjoyed with some of the inspired suggestions we received: One Heritage, One Past, One Future; Land and Sea United; Vineland; The Maritimes: Where the New World Begins; and Sen. Mike Duffy’s Home Away from Home.
We do, however, have something to say on a question that has always bedevilled whenever the issue of Maritime union resurfaced: where should the capital be?
Sure, choosing between the existing provincial capitals of Halifax, Fredericton and Charlottetown — or New Brunswick’s bustling cities of Moncton or Saint John — would be hard.
That is why we have opted for a fresh start in a place that symbolizes game-changing thinking. Pugwash, after all, is home to the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which won the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize. From Pugwash — with a good set of binoculars — it may even be possible to see New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island from the Nova Scotia shoreline.
Creation of the Maritimes would change this region’s narrative, say the concept’s advocates. Efficiencies — and countless millions in savings — would be possible right off the bat. Greene, who as a Tory in Ottawa should know, says that the area’s political clout would grow dramatically. “The premier would be the representative of 1.8 million people and would also be able to influence a lot of federal seats. Any prime minister would take note of that.”
Who knows? Although a National Hockey League franchise would probably still be out of the question, a marketplace of nearly two million people would surely merit consideration for a Canadian Football League franchise.
Well, we can dream, can’t we? Since we are indulging in what Campbell calls “what-if scenarios,” we can even let our imaginations consider another question: if Maritime union happened, who would run it? It wasn’t easy, but after much deliberation, we came up with a list of potential all-star politicians.
In other words, our dream cabinet: