As published on page C1 on October 28, 2006

Increased container ship traffic from Asian ports to Saint John, above, and Halifax is one aim of the Atlantica concept, which is quietly gaining momentum on both sides of the Canada-United States border.

MONCTON – Slowly, quietly, Atlantica’s tide seems to be coming in.

While the proposed trade bloc’s public profile has subsided since a major conference in Saint John in June, behind the scenes in board rooms and the halls of government, the concept is gaining steam.

“I think it is taking off,” says Stephen Kymlicka, senior policy analyst with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

“I think more and more we’re seeing money being spent by both the private and the public sector on research initiatives and on getting people together for conferences.”

The Halifax-based think-tank is one of the chief promoters of Atlantica, a proposed economic region encompassing the Atlantic Provinces, the northeastern United States and parts of Ontario and Quebec.

Atlantica aims to restore the traditional north-south trade relationships between Atlantic Canada and the northern United States that were lost after Confederation.

The trade bloc concept is seen as a way to restore economic vitality to the have-not provinces and states of the U.S. and Canadian east coasts.

Part of the Atlantica strategy is to make the region a gateway for Asian trade.

Proponents of Atlantica hope to make Halifax and, potentially, Saint John destinations for container ships that travel through the Suez Canal to eastern North America in a bid to avoid congestion at Pacific Coast ports.

Atlantica supporters also see the region, and New Brunswick in particular, as an energy hub for the northern U.S., which is focused on finding secure sources of fuel and electricity.

The Reaching Atlantica: Business Without Boundaries conference in Saint John last summer marked the first time hundreds of influential business leaders and senior government bureaucrats gathered to chart a new course to economic prosperity on the East Coast.

Kymlicka says he’s encouraged by the progress made on Atlantica issues since the June conference on both sides of the border.

“Progress has certainly been made in the States, the Can-Am connections project [a study of highways in Maine and the Maritimes] is now going on and the final report is expected out next year,” he says.

Business groups such as the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce have also been quietly working on Atlantica.

“We’re moving our agenda forward,” says chairman Stephen Dempsey.

The Atlantic chamber is working on its plans for a second Atlantica conference. Called the Atlantica Congress, the gathering is being organized for mid-June 2007 in Halifax.

“It will be building on the work we did in Saint John. We’re working right now on the themes. We had energy, transportation and tourism as themes [last June] and we want to have a similar focus,” says Dempsey. “We’re also getting ready to set up our Atlantica council.”

Irving Oil Ltd.’s announcement that it is considering a second oil refinery in the Saint John was also a boost for Atlantica’s energy hub concept.

The refinery, which has an estimated price tag of between $5 billion and $7 billion, would be the largest private-sector investment in Atlantic Canada’s history.

A number of other Atlantica issues have garnered support from the provincial governments in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

New Brunswick’s Liberal government, elected on Sept. 18, has embraced core Atlantica concepts such as a shared Maritime approach to energy generation and export to the U.S. market.

N.B. Premier Shawn Graham has also proposed a Maritime Transportation Accord to harmonize transportation policies and regulation throughout the region. Such an agreement would further the Atlantica goal of making the Maritimes a crossroads for trade.

In Nova Scotia, Premier Rodney MacDonald’s government has created a cabinet-level position for the gateway concept that would make Halifax a major port for Asian container traffic. MacDonald has approached Prime Minister Stephen Harper for $400 million in funding for the project.

The institute for market studies has also been active, commissioning several new research papers on Atlantica. The reports will be made public later this fall and early in 2007.

As well, Kymlicka lobbied the Senate in Ottawa on removing barriers to trade and investment in Atlantic Canada.