Wednesday, July 18, 2001
The Chronicle Herald

Is geography destiny for eastern Canada?

By Brian Lee Crowley

THE WOMEN’S movement revolutionized everyone’s thinking by answering no to the question “Is biology destiny?” Nature didn’t limit women to childcare and homemaking. They could be professionals, managers and anything else they chose. The history of the past few decades has been in large part about playing out the consequences of that realization, with tremendous benefits for women and society at large.

The revolutionary question in the coming decades for this corner of North America is not about biology, but geography. For a century and more, geography has shaped our destiny in a way that was largely beyond our control. That era has ended, but we have not yet seized control of our lives again.

The corner of North America I’m referring to is not just Atlantic Canada. It also embraces the sliver of the Unites States that reaches from Maine through New Hampshire and Vermont and into northern New York State. That wedge of territory, which some are now calling Atlantica, has been outside the charmed circle of North American prosperity for years.

The reasons are buried deep in our history. Especially after the Americans rejected Reciprocity and Confederation was born, the continent was divided into two national projects. Each sought to open up its half of the continent on an east-west axis. Each had a funnel on the East Coast that caught the energies of Europe and channelled them toward the conquest of the continent.

Montreal, the second most important commercial city of the British Empire, was our point of contact. The urban Eastern Seaboard, from Boston through New York, Philadelphia and Washington, was the American equivalent. Look at a map and you’ll soon see that, in a world of two half-continental enterprises organized on an east-west axis, Atlantica is the reef around which the movements of people, capital and innovation surged, one heading south, the other north.

Confederation added a layer of politics to the Canadian picture. Maritimers and Newfoundlanders were intrepid traders who had built their own trade links around the region and the world, reaching out to the Boston states, the Caribbean and Europe. But the new nation, with its policy of favouring Central Canada through high tariff barriers, in the words of one historian, had the effect of pushing the Maritimes 1,000 miles further out to sea and away from its natural markets.

Politics added insult to injury. The cumulative effects of a century of policies favouring the population centres of Quebec and Ontario has been crumbling infrastructure and provincial governments and electorates corrupted by hush money in the form of large transfer payments. Likewise, the northern New England states lost out in political battles with richer and more powerful states like California, Texas, New York and Massachusetts.

But continental free trade and globalization may put an end to the isolation of Atlantica. The east-west axis for development of North America is being supplemented by a drive to stitch back together the old north-south trade routes that had flourished across the continent before 1867. The U.S. will spend $400 billion US over the next few years on priority highway construction, for example, almost all of it on north-south routes, such as the North American Superhighway running from Winnipeg to Mexico City.

For the moment, none of that money is earmarked to fill in the obvious gaps in Atlantica’s transport infrastructure. The connections from St. Stephen, N.B. to Bangor, and thence to Montreal or to northern New York and then Toronto, Detroit and points south, are still laughable. Yet St.Stephen-Calais is the 11th most important road crossing linking the world’s two largest trading partners. Over 300,000 trucks from Canada enter Maine every year, a number that has doubled in only five years.

For years, Canada and the U.S. turned their backs to each other at the Maine-New Brunswick border. Maine’s transport infrastructure was starved because, surrounded on three sides by Canada, it looked to American transport planners as if you couldn’t get anywhere from Maine. Under the half-continent model, the transport problem of the Atlantica states was to join the party to the south. Our problem here was to get around Maine. In the free-trade era, Maine and the northern New England states are looking east-west, not south, and we are shipping containers to Chicago and natural gas to Boston.

If Atlantica is to escape the role of geographic backwater to which the last century relegated us, the coalition we must build is a cross-border one. Many American politicians, including both New York senators, have endorsed a call for Washington to examine the transport infrastructure in the corridor from Halifax through northern New England and New York. But Maritimers have to do their part too. A new destiny beckons, for those who know how to seize it.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: [email protected]