by Brian Flemming


The term “think-tank” is shorthand for many different kinds of public policy research institutes. The words are somewhat misleading because they conjure up visions of battle tanks thundering across deserts, or receptacles for sewage, gas or propane.


During the last decade-and-a-half, think-tanks have flourished in Canada. That’s because they filled the vacuums left by deficit-cutting governments when our political masters eliminated many policy positions from the federal and provincial public services of the country.


The top think-tank in the Atlantic region is the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) – – which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. AIMS is led by its far-seeing founder, Brian Lee Crowley, a former academic who combines the attributes of the best think-tank CEOs: a fine intellect, first-class media skills (he once wrote editorials for The Globe and Mail) and an ability to fund-raise.


One of the most decorated think-tanks in the world, AIMS has won the prestigious Sir Antony Fisher International Memorial Award fours times and is the only North American think-tank to hold the Templeton Freedom Award for 2005.


A Halifax dinner celebrating AIMS’ 10th birthday earlier this year attracted not only the region’s business elite but political luminaries such as Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney, Hon. John Crosbie, Hon. Elmer MacKay and former U.S. Defense Secretary, Hon. William Cohen.


The dinner’s guest list (to no one’s surprise) revealed that AIMS has substantial support from the right side of the political spectrum. But it also has many friends in the centre of that spectrum too. (Full disclosure: about eight years ago, I worked on an AIMS project on regulation.)


Unlike some Canadian think-tanks, AIMS has a worldliness and relevance other think-tanks lack. Last week, for example, AIMS brought Quebec‘s most interesting political leader, Mario Dumont, to Halifax and Moncton.


Dumont, leader of the action democratique du Quebec party, has become a force in Quebec politics by espousing out-of-the-box ideas in that semi-sovereignist, corporatist and left-liberal province. Bringing Dumont here to expose him and his ideas to regional leaders was a typically astute move by the bilingual Crowley.


AIMS has never shied away from new ideas. One of its edgiest current ideas is found in AIMS’ promotion of the concept of “Atlantica”, i.e. thinking of the Atlantic region and the American northeast as a single, natural economic unit.


For Crowley, this project means it’s back to the future for a region that, before the American civil war and Confederation, had close economic and social ties with New England, connections that war and Confederation shattered. AIMS asserts that “Atlantica” must once again become an economic engine. This idea has been gaining traction in the United States where Crowley has been talking about it with influential business and political leaders.


Other recent AIMS projects or initiatives have centred on the region’s education establishment. AIMS has asked whether taxpayers and pupils have been getting their money’s worth from that system. And, from the time of its founding, AIMS has been questioning the fairness and efficacy of Canada‘s equalization program among provinces. Its proposals for reform are gaining strength.


The big question for Crowley is: after a decade of success and significant policy influence, what next? It’s an appropriate query at a time when many other Canadian think-tanks are “changing the guards” at the top.


The current CEOs of the C.D.Howe Institute (Jack Mintz), Canadian Policy Research Networks (Judith Maxwell), the Institute for Research on Public Policy (Hugh Segal) and the Fraser Institute (Michael Walker) are all moving on.


Crowley would be on the short list for the top job at any one of these think-tanks. He turns 50 this week, an age when it is natural for someone of Crowley’s ability to ponder other challenges.


I, for one, trust that Crowley, a come-from-away, has finally been infected with the dreaded “Bluenose disease”, that overwhelming desire to stay here beside the ocean, even when it may not necessarily be in one’s economic or resume-building interest to do so.


So, many happy returns, Brian and AIMS. May you both remain and flourish in “Atlantica” for a long time to come.

Brian Flemming can be reached at [email protected]