By Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

HALIFAX (CP) – The debate over a proposed enhanced trade zone for the East Coast shifted indoors Thursday as competing think-tanks clashed over whether the concept can bring prosperity without damaging the environment.

While protesters picketed outside the Atlantica conference, the opening symposium heard from a critic who claimed creating more Atlantic Canadian trade and transport links with the U.S. northeast shouldn’t be region’s top priority.

Scott Sinclair of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives also bluntly told several hundred delegates that the business-led agenda lacked legitimacy.

“The point is you need to welcome more people to this debate before the policy directions have been set and decided,” Sinclair told Charles Cirtwill, president of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies, a Halifax think-tank that has championed the Atlantica concept for several years.

Last year, angry protesters picketed the Atlantica conference in Saint John, N.B., and a peaceful demonstration erupted into a scuffle that led to three arrests.

Cirtwill said his group is open to criticism and discussion.

“The simple fact is policy directions of Atlantica have been set in stone by no one,” he said. “We’re not usurping the political authority in any states or provinces, or any capitals.

“It’s not our fault that labour and environmental groups are coming late to the table but, by God, we’re glad to see them and we’re looking forward to the discussion.”

Sinclair focused some of his key criticisms on Atlantica’s vision of creating a highway system that flows from Halifax through New Brunswick and Maine, ending in Buffalo.

“A jump in road freight transport would cause considerable harm,” he said in his opening statement. “Greenhouse gases from the transportation sector have risen 31 per cent between 1990 and 2004, and trucking is actually responsible for 90 per cent of that gain.

“Serious efforts to curb global warming and to have a sustainable economy which we all support mean real changes, not creating more of the same thing that has gotten us into these problems.”

Cirtwill countered later in the debate that Sinclair and other opponents of the Atlantica movement are jumping to conclusions because rail links may become the method that will join the regions together. The end result would allow East Coast ports to become the destination for cargo shipped from Asia to North America through the Suez Canal, he said.

Cirtwill said characterizing Atlantica as being dependent on a massive increase in trucking is “a fallacy.” He said the idea would be to use road trains, where a truck carries two or more semi-trailers, to bring freight from ports to “terminals where they can hook onto rail.”

“The only discussion of road trains has been between Halifax and Saint John, N.B., where they could hook onto rail going west or rail going south, allowing us an access to service the U.S. seaboard that isn’t there now.”

Stephen Blank, a third participant in the forum, said the time frame is shrinking for Atlantic Canada to establish itself as a major conduit for international trade.

“You have to start somewhere. It’s a tremendous opportunity in this great moment of uncertainty,” said the professor at the North American Centre for Transborder Studies at Arizona University.

However, Sinclair said that with the United States slowing trade due to its security concerns, the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce – a business group that supports Atlantica – should focus on other markets.

“Why is this chamber not launching an initiative to get Atlantic Canadian companies to increase trade with Europe. Atlantica seems to have subsumed this chamber’s existence.”
Cirtwill argued that whatever protesters and milder critics might think, the region has to come up with free ways to improve its economy.

“Atlantica is about the U.S. and Canada working together to access the world. The simple reality is the American market is declining and the Asian market is growing and that’s our new potential,” he said.

“Globalization is a reality, whether folks outside the building like it or not, whether the people in this room like it or not. It’s a simple reality that people in this room have to deal with.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay delivered a keynote speech Thursday evening, telling the audience that global trade is the “one of the defining issues for this and future generations of Atlantic Canadians.”

“(Canada) is a union whose parts will all grow and prosper as they continue to share in our nation’s growth and prosperity,” said MacKay, who is also in charge of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

“We must ensure that our region keeps pace, not just with other regions but with the world.”
MacKay said improving trade between eastern regions of Canada and the United States could help the larger concept of an Atlantic Gateway, an idea championed by Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald and would see the region become a major entry point into North America for international trade.

On Day 1 of the conference, about 200 protesters convened in the morning outside Halifax’s World Trade and Convention Centre under the watch of about a dozen police officers. Maude Barlow, chairwoman of the Council of Canadians, told the group she was concerned that an agreement on freer trade between Eastern Canada and some northeastern U.S. states will allow resources to be taken out of Canada.

“You’re going to send all your oil and gas to the United States, and you mark my words, within five to 10 years, you’ll be sending water down as well.”

At a later rally outside the Nova Scotia Power company, protesters gathered to oppose the company’s increased rates and privatization.

In a news release issued late in the day, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency said it will provide $558,000 to create an Atlantica Council, which will “work to maximize the Atlantica region’s position at the centre of one of the major global trading routes.”