by Scott Mackay

Movie connoisseurs will remember this enigmatic line from the quaint and wonderful film, “Field of Dreams,” that referred to building a baseball diamond in the midst of an Iowa cornfield. When it was finished, the ghosts of the past baseball greats did come — drifting out of rows of corn onto the baseball field for ethereal night games.

For me, that line and movie should be a metaphor for this week’s Reaching Atlantica – Business Without Boundaries conference here in Saint John. A symbol for what we can accomplish, in New Brunswick, if we establish the great concepts of Atlantica. After all, it is a concept that, if achieved, could help restore a more effective and efficient harmonized trading corridor between the Atlantic provinces, southeast Quebec and the Northeastern United States. A traditional trading relationship which once had strong connections to many European, North African, Asian, Carribean and Northeastern United States markets.

Implicit in this argument is the idea that there is a structural flaw in the architecture of Canadian politics since confederation, that the composite effects of more than a century of federal policies favouring Central Canada has been nothing more than crumbling infrastructure, high unemployment, out-migration and regional dependency.

For Brian Lee Crowley, president of Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and leading advocate of Atlantica, it is essential that we open a vigorous dialogue to re-establish the region as an vibrant economic powerhouse. Much of the case for Atlantica rests squarely on its ability to find its rightful place within the framework of NAFTA. More to the point, if this concept can be realized, then benefits will accrue to all regions of Atlantic Canada.

This in large part will redefine the region as a viable economic force, with resuscitated infrastructure, that can once again stand proudly on its own two feet. “A great deal of the region’s infrastructure is always precarious because we inhabit a large but sparsely populated area. That means traffic levels are always relatively low compared to capital and upkeep costs”, says Crowley. “But bringing the Asian traffic flowing through Atlantic Canada, we can increase traffic flows to levels far in excess of what our own local population and economic activity could justify.”

Saint John Port and LNG Key Components 

Moreover, volume limitations in the United States and on Canadian west coast ports have placed a heavy burden on many major shipping line companies whereas container ships from Asia have decided to alter their trade routes through the Suez and Mediterranean to the east coast. The increase in container traffic has opened up a major opportunity for our Canadian east coast ports as it seems as though its emmense potential has no end in sight. So what does this mean for Saint John? Well, for starters, the port, because of its location, could act as a center point for Atlantica, especially since it is closer to many more major US markets than is Halifax.

More than that, Crowley cogitates Atlantica as a key ingredient which could broker an agreeable connection between remote natural gas fields and energy esurient markets. With the emergence of a global natural gas market, there is no question that Saint John will rely heavily on the strength of LNG as a key component driving the economic engine of this region. And as Crowley made clear, “this region’s development is crucially linked to our ability to stay connected to the US northeast. None of the natural gas opportunities we have would have been possible (Sable or LNG) if we had not built infrastructure to feed the US market. We get a free ride in the region as marginal players on the back of US investments.”

But unfortunately, this is where the difficulty starts. While many business leaders, politicians and economist begin to gather in Saint John in support of the Atlantica concept, there are just as many who will eventually congregate to the port city to oppose the idea. This loud group of left-wing protesters has branded a make shift website which don’s the slogan “Stop- Atlantica”. The group has “representatives from childcare, Aboriginal, women’s rights, health care, human rights, gay and lesbian rights, environmental protection, arts, and advocacy groups and trade unions” which argue that further integration with Northeastern United States will lead to the dissolution of our “culture and values”.Usual suspect, Maude Barlow, the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, goes on to present a mile-long list of Terrible Things that will happen if we chose to impliment the Atlantica concept. All which seem to hold a ton of ad hominems and gripes, but little in the area of alternative solutions.

So what would the “real” consequences to our region be if we fail to make Atlantica work? Well, it could be potentially devastating for a province, like New Brunswick, which has an over dependency on government and has not had average population growth since Confederation. And as Crowly admits, “traffic volumes will not remain stable, but will almost certainly fall, as the trend to focusing seaborne commerce on a smaller and smaller number of hub ports means that Atlantic Canada will be bypassed altogether by this traffic.”

Hence, in my humbled opinion, there is no real sufficient reason for this not to go through, since it[Atlantica] has the wherewithall to uplift a region which, economically, has been stuck in neutral for well over a hundred years now. We must not forget that we were once a young region, we were a region of builders, a region of traders, a robust region, a region full of hope, spirit and determination. Let us hope that this attitude will once again prevail this week at the Saint John Trade and Convention Centre where many great leaders will be working hard to ensure the recommendations from the Atlantica concept are not ignored.

And when it comes to the concept of Atlantica, I have undoubtedly become convinced that: If You Build It, They Will Come.

Scott Mackay is a former parliamentary assistant with the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative Party. He can be reached by email at [email protected].