By Charles Cirtwill

My last column on Atlantica engendered some remarkable feedback that requires discussion. Not about Atlantica itself; that ship has sailed – just ask the 300 people who attended the premier’s recent symposium on the Atlantic Gateway. The reaction to my column that needs further exploration is the flurry of calls, e-mails and conversations I have had about my statement that an Atlantica TILMA would be a bad thing for the region.

TILMA is the acronym for the Trade Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement that recently came into effect between British Columbia and Alberta. It allows freer movement of goods, cash and people (trade, investment and labour) between the economies. B.C. and Alberta have achieved for themselves what the Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT) failed miserably to do for all 10 provinces. They have created a clear and enforceable liberalized environment for trade and commerce inside Canada.

Why, then, would an Atlantica TILMA hurt this region? Simple: Because it would be an Atlantica TILMA, just for us; and, regrettably, we are not alone. Ontario and Quebec are mumbling about having a Central Canadian TILMA. Competing blocs within a single nation hamper trade east-west while trade flows freely north-south.

You see, it isn’t that these agreements set out barriers to trade from outside the bloc; it is that they set up rules that facilitate trade within the bloc. If it is easier and cheaper for a drilling company in Alberta to buy its pre-fabricated steel in B.C., how much longer do you think it will take a loss and buy those structures here in Nova Scotia? If a B.C. welder/carpenter/pipe fitter can have her credentials recognized in Alberta by filling out a form and can’t get them recognized in New Brunswick without taking a six-month upgrading course, where do you think she will go looking for work?

Would a regional TILMA be better than no TILMA at all? Absolutely! The barriers between our neighbouring provinces are wasteful and keep us from growing by selling seamlessly to each other. But a regional TILMA is a poor second best to signing on to the agreement that already exists. The Alberta and B.C. economies are larger and growing faster than ours. We have more to gain by linking to those economies than we do to the economies of our neighbouring provinces. Better still, how far behind in signing do you think New Brunswick would be if Nova Scotia signed TILMA tomorrow, or vice versa? We can get our regional TILMA by joining the national one, and we can get it quicker, with less effort and with greater overall benefits.

In fact, TILMA is specifically designed to allow other provinces to join later. Even the federal government has made noises about joining, not because it hopes to see its trade with Alberta and B.C. grow, but because of the example such a step would set for the other provinces to get on board.

However, Nova Scotia has finite human resources in its intergovernmental and trade development branches. Simply put, they can’t negotiate both a regional and a national TILMA simultaneously. Or if they can, they could do a better job if asked to negotiate only one. Besides, if they do it sequentially, then who deals with our other trade issues? Who pushes for the opening of new markets in India and Southeast Asia? Who carries the gateway vision to the world? Let’s get the job here at home done well, and then get on with building our global footprint.

And let’s move quickly. If other provinces start signing on to the existing agreement, we have less leverage to negotiate terms we feel are critical to acceptance of the deal here at home. Not that I am advocating exceptions and protections, but every agreement has them, so let’s be practical about this. Will it be easier to negotiate these conditions with two other provinces or nine? For a hint at the answer, consider that the AIT negotiations among all 10 provinces have been going on for 13 years.

This will be an important week as we consider which way we will go on TILMA. With an event here in Halifax mid-week and then a ministers’ meeting in St. John’s at the end of the week, it is time to decide our future. Certainly a regional accord modelled on TILMA would make us better off than we are. But I think the premier needs to take his own advice, and “think big.”

Charles Cirtwill is the acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a non-partisan public policy think tank based in Halifax.