by Charles W. Moore
For the Times & Transcript

It is a shame that ideological blindness of the usual suspects – unions, rabid ultranationalists like the Council of Canadians, radical feminists, and other fellow-traveling leftist flat-earthers got most of the media attention focused on the “Reaching Atlantica: Business without Boundaries,” conference hosted in Saint John last weekend by the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce, bringing together business leaders, trade experts and scholars to discuss a strategy for creating an International Northeast Economic Region (AINER) – a cross-border economic zone encompassing the northeast corner of North America.

The Atlantica concept has been advocated by the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) think tank for several years, with the ambitious objective of bringing Atlantic Canada back into the nation’s economic forefront by facilitating the region’s taking better advantage of free trade and geography.

AIMS notes that Canada lags far behind the U.S. in exploiting the fact that 40 per cent of world trade is between North America and the European Union, with the Port of Halifax a day’s sailing time closer to Europe than other major east coast ports, potentially shaving transportation time to North American heartland destinations like Detroit, Chicago and Memphis. The Institute notes that Atlantic Canada is not only a relatively poor region within Canada but part of a relatively poor region that straddles the Canada-U.S. border, and contends that the border and its peculiar interrelationships with geography and politics in this corner of the continent explain much of that state of affairs.

“Atlantica” broadly encompasses the Atlantic Provinces, eastern Quebec, the northern tier of New England states, and northern New York state, all of which share various common characteristics: similar demographics, social diversity and migration, a shared history, and interrelated transportation issues, but AIMS argues that trade restrictions imposed by an international border running through the heart of Atlantica hobbles the region’s prosperity.

For example, a container bound for Chicago from Halifax via the geographically shortest distance would have to undergo border formalities four times, but entering via the Port of New York, would go through border bureaucracy just once.

With free trade and globalization, AIMS argues, Atlantica has a golden opportunity to establish its rightful place in the continental economy, and if the border cannot be made to disappear, its impact must be minimized as much as possible by making it equally attractive to establish commercial relationships across provincial-state lines as it is across state lines or provincial lines within the two countries. To accomplish this, Canada’s Atlantic Provinces and the U.S. northeast must become as economically integrated and coherent as is, for example, southwestern Ontario and the U.S. Midwest already are with the auto industry.

In order for this to happen, AIMS says, it will be necessary to retool policy, planning, and regulatory regimes in all provinces and states in the region, as well as the two national governments, which will in turn require an unprecedented degree of common purpose, including, but not limited to, understanding of how taxation regimes interact, establishment of complementary regulatory and licensing regimes, new policies respecting corporate linkages, and freer movement of labour, all of which the Atlantica Conference was in aid of.

I think the Atlantica initiative represents the sort of innovative thinking it will take to extract Atlantic Canada from its century-plus downward spiral of what AIMS’ Brian Crowley calls -“genteel decline.” Unfortunately, the unions, nationalists, protectionists and knee-jerk America-haters, as usual, just don’t get it that before you can slice an economic pie equitably, first you have to secure the pie, which requires trade and commerce, preferably without a lot of bureaucratic obstacles constipating the process.

If the vision of Atlantica could be realized, it would be a wonderful facilitator toward restoring Atlantic Canada’s heritage as a thriving centre of international trade, but even better would be to integrate all of Canada and the U.S. inside one big continental economic and security zone, which would also eliminate the looming problem of American passport controls at the border which former Ambassador to the U.S. Frank McKenna estimated as potentially causing a reduction of up to 7.7 million visitors to Canada, and losses of nearly $2 billion annually – mainly from the tourism industry.

The ideal solution would be a European Union-style “perimeter” that would allow Canada and the U.S. to jointly manage common external border entry points while largely dismantling internal border restrictions. Last year, an independent task force sponsored by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, of which former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley is a co-chair, recommended that Canada, the United States and Mexico become a single trading zone. This is so logical that it should be a no-brainer, but resistance from the above-mentioned “usual suspects” is of course a given.

Charles W. Moore is a Nova Scotia-based freelance writer who has been published widely.