by: Charles Cirtwill
Prince Edward Island has, yet again, hosted the mavens of continental co-operation and found itself discussing the benefits, means and mechanisms of commercial union with the rest of Canada.
No, this was not a re-enactment of the Confederation debates, but the modern day offspring of that far off and sometimes celebrated, sometimes pilloried, meeting in Charlottetown. It was the annual gathering of the Committee on Internal Trade recently held at Brudenell.
What is the ‘Committee on Internal Trade’ you ask? Well, it is not, all appearances to the contrary, a central agency left over from the former Soviet Union (although it does have many of the same central-planning-of-the-economy tendencies that you would expect of such a dinosaur). It is, in fact, a committee made up of the trade or intergovernmental ministers of the Canadian provinces and territories, plus a secretariat (i.e. their staff).
One of its big jobs is to continue to negotiate, finalize or administer (the actual wording depends on who you ask) the Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT). The Agreement on Internal Trade is an agreement between the provinces which was signed in 1995. It was meant to finally, after about 130 years, bring free trade to Canada. So it is perhaps not surprising that 16 years after the agreement was put into place, very little has changed. Well, OK, that isn’t fair, after 13 years of wrangling some progress has been made over the past few years.
But make no mistake, that progress is not the result of the many years of claims, counterclaims, complaints and finger pointing at these annual excuses for cross-Canada travel by public servants. Any progress on the AIT in the last few years – and by progress I mean actually enforcing free and open trade between the provinces – is the direct result of what was once called TILMA, the Trade Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement between Alberta and British Columbia, and what has now morphed into the New West Partnership (NWP), adding Saskatchewan and Manitoba to the mix.
It turns out that the west was serious about this free trade thing, and decided to move forward without us, bilaterally. And they did so quite successfully, thank you very much. One result of the huge success of free trade between the western provinces has been the belated, and I would argue still only half-hearted, move by the rest of Canada to get the AIT back on track.
Which brings me to my bold suggestion for a monumental leap forward in Prince Edward Island’s trade policy vis-à-vis the rest of Canada: Forget about the AIT, join the NWP, and do it today.
In five years, the western provinces have moved closer to free trade inside our country than we have ever seen before. In those five years can be seen the realization of the economic promises made during the Confederation debates 150 years ago. While the NWP is by no means perfect, they have made real progress on labour mobility, skills recognition, protected industries, allowable subsidies, government investment, and a slew of other minutiae that has kept the national agreement stalled for 16 years, and kept us without a functioning agreement for 130 years before that.
Finally, other Canadians have the same access to the economic opportunities in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba that Americans and Chinese investors, among many, many others have enjoyed for so long. Finally, Canadians are allowed to compete in these economic powerhouses on a level playing field. Canadians from the west, that is.
So Prince Edward Island, step up, be bold, and ask to buy in. Once again be the easterners that see the potential of Canada and seize it with both hands. This time, don’t let central Canadians or other Maritimers hold you back. Jump over them, secure free and open access to the economies of the future and, make no mistake, you will quickly get similar unfettered access to the rest. Because if P.E.I. goes, so will New Brunswick or Nova Scotia, and the other blocks will soon follow.
Be bold, P.E.I. You led us into Confederation, now finish the job.
Charles Cirtwill is president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an independent social and economic policy think tank based in Atlantic Canada.