FREDERICTON – The federal minister heading the Atlantic gateway says he disagrees with reports that funding under the program has stalled due to internal squabbles and rivalries.
“I think that certainly everybody has an interest in their communities, but I think once it’s all said and done, people will be able to work together in this process,” said Keith Ashfield, minister for the Atlantic Gateway and minister of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.
“I think we’re a little too early for criticism in this process,” he said. “It is a process, it takes some time, and we’re working through that.”
Ashfield, who inherited the gateway file in January from National Defence Minister Peter MacKay, spoke Monday in response to comments by Atlantic public policy experts last week who accused the gateway’s member groups of competing – not collaborating – for federal funds.
Earlier statements, this time attributed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, questioned the gateway’s ability to draft a cohesive vision for the region.
Meanwhile, the executive director of the Atlantic Gateway Advisory Council, David Oxner, has said it is unclear whether any money remains in the $2.1-billion federal Gateways and Border Crossings Fund announced by the Conservatives in 2007.
Ashfield said he doesn’t know when the funds will be allocated. But the minister believes the gateway, which encompasses the region’s network of air, rail, marine and road freight transportation, is “moving forward.”
“We have a committee made up of all four Atlantic provinces, as well as ACOA, reviewing projects that may possibly fit under the gateway title,” the minister said.
“We’ll decide at some point which of the projects we can afford and which are a priority.”
Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based public policy organization, says a proper regional strategy should go beyond picking from four lists of projects.
“We have a real challenge here in defining what we want,” Cirtwill said. “The problem is we’re defining success as getting a cheque (from the government).”
Ottawa has yet to approve a federal-provincial gateway strategy document meant to take effect last fall.
Each province has spawned its own gateway groups since the creation of the federal fund. The New Brunswick Gateway Council, which recently absorbed Belledune, Enterprise Chaleur, the Port of Dalhousie and Fredericton Airport, is one of them.
The Atlantic Gateway Advisory Council was founded last year to advise governments on matters pertaining to the gateway. The Nova Scotia Gateway Secretariat and Advisory Council was formed shortly thereafter.
Other similar groups include the Sydney and Area Gateway Council and the Corner Brook Gateway Committee.
The Halifax Gateway Council was established in 2004, and recently issued a five-year plan to become the country’s “preferred gateway.”