By Charles Cirtwill 

THE LABOUR movement has found its latest cause celebre in the notion of Atlantica. In a series of op-eds, press releases and town hall sessions, self-proclaimed opponents of Atlantica are urging the premiers of the region to reject the Atlantica proposal. What exactly are they being urged to reject?

Atlantica is not a proposal for political union of the provinces and states in the region, so there is no referendum to vote down, no constitutional convention to refuse to hold. Atlantica is not a call for provinces to spend money, so there are no cheques not to write, no bills not to pay.

Atlantica is not even a call for a free trade zone in the region on the model of the Trade Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement just signed by British Columbia and Alberta. In fact, such a regional trading bloc would harm the region known as Atlantica. Which do you think would help your local exporter more, improved access to an economy of $277 billion (Atlantica) or $61 trillion (the world)?

So what, exactly, is Atlantica?

Atlantica is the name that has been attached to the northeastern corner of the United States and the eastern portion of Canada. Its specific boundaries are amorphous because, unlike nation states, regions like Atlantica have no firm boundaries.

Unfortunately, it also has weak infrastructure and market strength on which to build the engines of growth. So, a new mine in Labrador never opens because it can’t economically feed raw material to a smelter in northern New Brunswick or southern Massachusetts. A biotech company in Northern New York State can’t attract the people it needs. Aqua-farms in Cape Breton and Newfoundland can’t individually grow enough to service the Japanese market. Atlantica is a way for us to collectively solve these and similar problems.

Atlantica is a region bound together by a common history, a common culture, a common economy and common challenges. No premier can, by the stroke of a pen or any other action, make that common connection disappear. Atlantica exists whether we want it to or not.

Atlantica does not require the endorsement of academics whether they work for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies or the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Although it bears noting that every study but one has touted the potential of this region and the various opportunities opening up before it.

The question before us isn’t whether we will allow Atlantica to exist. The question before us is whether we will take advantage of its existence in order to make our lives better. The answer to that has, so far, been an unequivocal yes.

Could this change? Could individuals and entire provinces turn their back on the reality that they live within Atlantica?

Absolutely, they could. Economic policy is rife with examples where they have tried – the National Energy Policy, the offshore regulatory boards, various local content rules.
But no matter how hard we try to ignore it, reality has a funny way of sneaking up and smacking us in the back of the head. Geographic, economic and social reality, not to mention simple self-interest, has always drawn us back into the Atlantica fold, whatever label was placed on it at the time. Consider whom we send a Christmas tree to every year. Or consider more modern examples like the Maritime Beer Accord and the investment in ferry facilities to link Nova Scotia to Maine, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick.

There is no real debate that the two halves of Atlantica are relatively distressed compared to the nations of which they form a part. The innovation in the Atlantica concept is to recognize that, rather than being two regions relatively distressed compared to national wholes, we are actually one region relatively distressed compared to the continent on which we find ourselves.

Models of regions like Atlantica abound. Cascadia has existed in many forms on the West Coast for decades. Appalachia, which stretches from southern New York State to northern Mississippi, has worked hard to use collective resources to overcome hardships not unfamiliar to families in Yarmouth or Cheticamp. Atlantica itself is not new. The colony of Acadia covered most of the region and the later colony of Massachusetts did the same.

Atlantica is delivering benefits on the ground today: construction and operation jobs in the oil and gas industry in the Strait region; trucking, management and administrative jobs in Truro; jobs created by the containerized feeder service from Halifax to St. John’s; and more.
Atlantica lives, and we are all the better for it.

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