The concept of Maritime union is older than Canada itself. The now historic meeting of the Fathers of Confederation in 1864 began, after all, as a meeting on Maritime union.

Now, an upstart political party hopes to reignite the debate.

The Atlantica Party is the brainchild of Jonathan Dean, a 43-year-old financial advisor from Bedford, N.S. Dean is hoping to form provincial wings of his new Atlantica Party in all four of the Atlantic provinces, including Prince Edward Island.

Dean says the whole region could benefit from not only Maritime union but Atlantic union. He said after 140 years of national economic policies that have excluded Atlantic Canada, the region is dependent on federal transfers, without opportunities, projected to have declining or static populations and beset with growing political irrelevance.

“Fifty years of regional development has not solved these problems. While Ontario is projected to grow by four million people in the next 25 years, Atlantic Canada is projected to have at best next to no population growth,’’ he said in his call for support on his website.

“Twenty-two new Parliamentary seats are to be added by 2014, none in Atlantic Canada. Other than the status quo, there are no plans at either the federal or provincial level for changing this. And since the status quo means an Atlantic Canada drifting into political obscurity, we say (we have) no future.’’

The Atlantica Party, which distances itself from the free trade zone of the same name, has spent much of the past year-and-a-half formulating policy. It still doesn’t have any members, an executive or a policy document. The party is also still not registered in any of the four Atlantic provinces. But Dean said that’s about to change. He said with core policies in place he wants to go to the public. The party is looking for members, volunteers and, more importantly, candidates to run in the next provincial election in P.E.I., which is slated for 2011.

“We haven’t been going out and actively soliciting support,” Dean said in a telephone interview this week. “We feel that’s premature.”

The concept of P.E.I. becoming part of a larger Atlantic province is a non-starter for the Island’s newly elected premier.

“In a province that I was born and raised and educated in, I like our uniqueness, I like the fact that we are able to control our own destiny,” said Premier Robert Ghiz. “We’re very fortunate to live in this great country where we have a province that is small in population but yet because of a Constitution is able to carry the weight that it does.”

Ghiz believes the region’s voice is better heard by having four premiers at the national table rather than only one. Still, not everybody feels it’s a bad idea.

Garth Staples of Charlottetown served as deputy minister in the Jim Lee government between 1981 and 1986. He’s been a longtime advocate of Maritime union and his belief that a union of Canada’s poorest provinces is the best solution for the region is even stronger today.

Staples said larger provinces like Ontario are growing increasingly tired of supporting the East Coast provinces. He said if the region doesn’t take the initiative, Maritime union will be forced upon us.

“The cost of doing democracy is far too high in these three provinces,” he said.
The provinces, he added, could maintain their identities, but it could be governed from a central source.

Nova Scotia could run the Department of Transportation and Public Works; Prince Edward Island could be responsible for agriculture; New Brunswick, responsible for forestry. We could integrate all our services and still be our own people.”

UPEI political science Professor Peter McKenna said the idea of Maritime or Atlantic union simply won’t fly with Islanders. He said debates over where the capital would be located would be extremely divisive, not to mention the strong ties the people of the region have to their provinces.

Newfoundland and Labrador, he added, had limited interest in joining Canada so they would not be interested in joining Atlantic Canada as a single province.

“It’s going to be very, very difficult, I think, for anyone that’s proposing some sort of Atlantic party to get any traction,” said McKenna.

McKenna’s views are shared in neighbouring Nova Scotia.

Ian Munro is director of research at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies based in Halifax
He said while there could be a good argument made that Atlantic union would make sense economically, it will be a tough sell for Atlantic Canadians. Furthermore, he said it would be messy to implement considering that it would involve opening the Constitution and getting agreement from Canada’s 10 provinces as well as the federal government.

Munro, a native of Charlottetown, describes that as a can of worms.

“The likelihood of it ever becoming a practical reality are really, really slim,” he said. “It’s so far down any politician’s priority list, be that in the provincial governments down here or in the federal government . . . I don’t think it’s going to get any traction.”

There is an argument, Munro added, that competition between the four Atlantic provinces is actually good for the region. He said merging the four provincial governments would not necessarily lead to a single, more streamlined bureaucracy.

“You can imagine the different political horse trading that would go on,” he said. “It could end up becoming more dysfunctional and more costly.”

Still, Dean believes the time has come to reopen the debate on Atlantic union. He said a political union between the four Atlantic provinces could create a “larger, stronger Atlantic Canada with a louder voice with which to speak in Canada, a province of 2.4 million versus four small weak provinces.”

He said rationalization of government services would lower costs and an economic union would eliminate barriers to trade within the region.

“It’s been over 40 years since we’ve had some sort of discussion on Atlantic union.”