by Fred Hazel

Atlantica isn’t a concept that just popped up out of nowhere, as those attempting to oppose it seem to believe. I’ve been writing about it in this column for a good six or seven years. And I continue to perceive it as a solid attempt to help our region pull itself up by the bootstraps. Certainly we should be prepared to listen to what its proponents have to say.

Historically, businesses and industries in our once-thriving area of Canada have been severely curtailed since our natural north-south trade pattern into U.S. markets was curbed by Confederation in 1867. The new national policy favoured an east-west trading pattern designed to build up central Canada. Maritime leaders have been struggling ever since to find ways of asserting “Maritime Rights” and correcting this economic imbalance.

Atlantica could be an important answer. There’s never been anything mysterious or secret or sinister about it. Proponents in both Atlantic Canada and eastern United States have identified a potential trade corridor stretching from Newfoundland, through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, across the border to Maine and Quebec to link up with a vast New England trading market of 9.5 million people. With Ontario and New York connections, some enthusiasts see a potential marketplace of 21 million people.

I think that’s an idea well worth exploring. So does former New Brunswick Premier and ambassador to U.S. Frank McKenna, along with the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers Conference. And so, apparently, do a lot of high-profile experts in trade, tourism and economic development, who’ll be gathering in Saint John next weekend to explore the possibilities.

Common sense and common courtesy dictate that we should at least hear what these people have to say before attempting to picket, protest and obstruct them.

I’m really surprised at the unreasonable rhetoric and absolute negativity being mounted by a suddenly-formed protest group. I’m even more surprised by some of the individuals and organizations who seem to be supporting that group.

Next week’s conference, under the slogan “Reaching Atlantica: Business Without Borders,” is being sponsored jointly by the Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce and the Saint John Board of Trade. All of its speakers and their topics are identified in the agenda. So is its advisory board, which includes among others, Maine’s Timothy Woodcock, from whom I first heard about the concept a number of years ago in Bangor.

The Saint John conference – from June 8-10 – is billed as a forum for people interested in business to examine and discuss opportunities and challenges for the region in the tourism, transportation and energy sectors. Among objectives, they cite networking with business leaders in the region, promoting growth of East Coast port facilities and an east-west highway network and encouraging inter-provincial and international trade through removal of barriers and harmonizing of regulations. (Anyone who thinks that last one isn’t important should try lining up at the St. Stephen border crossing to get into Maine these days.)

These things seem perfectly reasonable and desirable to me.

But to look at the wildly-worded websites of the protestors, you’d think Armageddon was breaking loose!

“A Declaration Against Atlantica” makes this bizarre claim: “Barriers slated for dismantling by the proponents of Atlantica include – our national sovereignty, our labour rights, our national resources, our environment and our health.”

Portraying Atlantica as “a neo-conservative project,” the website sees it as “seeking to perpetuate local economic hardship by lowering minimum wages, restricting the ability of workers to organize and decertifying unions.” Labeling it “A cheap sell-off of our public resources, privatization of our public services and other concessions for large corporations,” the protest group predicts Atlantica will lead to “the annexation of Atlantic Canada by the United States.”

Phew! That’s some dialectical stretch for the aims of a group looking for ways to make things economically better in our region.

Among those listed as signing this declaration are such groups as: Haiti Action Federation, the Fredericton Anti-Imperialism Committee, the Communist Party of Canada, Canadian Action Party, Students Aware of the World, the Council of Canadians, representatives of some labour organizations, and – to my surprise – KARIOS, a church-based organization – and the Friends of Rockwood Park!

I have seen nothing which remotely justifies any of these far-out notions. I would hope that reasonable-minded citizens will not be taken in by such a protest and give those who are exploring the Atlantica concept the fair hearing their ideas deserve.

Fred Hazel is a retired editor-in-chief of the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His column appears in that newspaper on Friday.