by Alec Bruce

It was cold and wet and tempers were sometimes as foul as the weather, but in Saint John last weekend the first industry conference convened to examine the concept of Atlantica achieved at least one of its purposes: brand recognition.

As widely reported in newspapers and magazines across the Atlantic Provinces – presumably to the bemusement of labour representatives, student radicals and social activists who gathered to protest the proceedings at the city’s Trade and Convention Centre – no children were sold into slavery, no territories were expropriated by the robber barons of free enterprise, and no rights of man were sacrificed to the gods of global commerce.

It was enough for the 400-odd delegates from New England and Atlantic Canada, who attended the “Reaching Atlantica” shindig, to wrap their frazzled imaginations around the problem of getting a road built between Saint John and upstate New York. That, and myriad other distinctly prosaic challenges to cross-border regional competitiveness, dominated two full days of discussions.

There were keynote speeches and presentations on global trading patterns, inter-provincial barriers to commerce and labour mobility, logistical shipping networks, port performance, enterprise corridors, and back-haul export opportunities to the Far East.

There were working sessions on energy, transportation and tourism, calls for greater and better cooperation between New England and Atlantic Canadian economic development professionals and industry organizations, and requests for smoother intergovernmental relations between Canada and the U.S. in the areas of commercial regulation, shipping and shared transportation infrastructure.

All of which is to say that “Reaching Atlantica” achieved its other great purpose: To frame the tough conditions that affect the cross-border region’s economic coherence in a world where the concentration of wealth is inexorably shifting to the burgeoning markets of the Asian Tiger.

But, of course, now what?

“We are not a natural economic region,” declared Stephen Blank, a professor of international business at Pace University in New York, in a speech to delegates during the wrap-up session. “We’d better get that out of our heads. There is nothing natural about this, particularly in thinking that it’s inevitable. If there is going to be an Atlantica, you are going to have to make it.”

Jonathan Daniels, president and CEO of the Eastern Maine Development Corporation, seemed to agree: “June 12 is the scariest day for me in that we are coming out the other end of this conference and really setting the stage and the foundation for what can be done. It’s up to all of us who are involved, who share this vision, to make it work. We’ve been talking about it a long time. Now that we have a clear vision, the question is: How do we establish that vision. How do we establish Atlantica as a viable region?”

Allow me to offer a couple of suggestions.

Atlantica now needs respected political champions on both sides of the border; elected representatives who can help liberalize trade between states and provinces, and build new transportation infrastructure that directly connects the cross-border region to the Mexico City-Montreal NAFTA corridor.

Just as important is communicating with those Canadians and Americans who continue to believe that Atlantica, at some level, threatens their economic viability and political sovereignty.

Most of the people who assembled to protest the conference last weekend did not spend money and time they could ill afford merely to secure a bully pulpit for themselves. They were – and remain – genuinely concerned about their futures.

In the vacuum of facts prepared by well-organized groups such as Maude Barlow’s Council of Canadians, adherents of Atlantica not only have an opportunity, but a responsibility, to set the record straight for those who, however misguided, mistrust their intentions.

That, it seems to me, is the only brand recognition that now matters as we conjure our future together.

Alec Bruce is a Moncton-based journalist and author. His column appears in the Times & Transcript every Tuesday and Friday. Direct comments to: [email protected]