By David Shipley
Appeared on page A1

The backers of the Atlantica are hoping to make up for lost ground.

As the 2007 Atlantica conference wrapped up in Halifax over the weekend, proponents expressed optimism that talk of the trade bloc will turn to action. Jonathan Daniels, the new chairman of the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce, said the Atlantica council that was unveiled last week would push for progress.

“They’re not going to let this fester at all. They’re going to move through a pretty aggressive agenda and a pretty aggressive time frame,” said Daniels.

“They don’t want to come back next year purely with a strategy and a white paper saying here’s what we want to do. No, they want to come back with true successes.”

Stephen Dempsey, the former chairman of the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce, said he wished there had been more progress over the past year. However, he said initiatives such as Atlantica take time.

“They’re built by volunteers so you can only impose on people so much for extra time,” he said, adding however the added time gave the chamber the opportunity to give the makeup of the council more consideration.

Dempsey said the Halifax conference, which wrapped up Saturday, helped move the Atlantica concept forward. Atlantica refers to a trade zone encompassing the Atlantic provinces, the northeastern United States and parts of Quebec. The region stretches from St. John’s to Buffalo, N.Y. It aims to restore the traditional north-south trade relationships between Atlantic Canada and the northeastern U.S. that were severed after Confederation.

Making Atlantic Canada and the northeastern states a nexus for international trade would mean lower costs for businesses in the region to ship their goods to U.S. and global markets, proponents argue. In addition to the movement of goods, Atlantica also addresses issues such as regional electrical integration, reduction of trade barriers and the export of energy products such as oil and gas to a hungry American market. Such moves will bolster the economies of the provinces and states in Atlantica.

The Atlantica concept received significant support from the business community during the first conference in Saint John in 2006. However, progress on initiatives such as the creation of the council were stalled by a reorganization of the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce, the main group supporting the project.

Nathalie Godbout, chairwoman of the Saint John Board of Trade, which helped organized the 2006 conference, said progress on Atlantica faltered because there was no strategic plan after last year’s conference.

“I think all of us came away from that first Atlantica conference just so buzzed and energized about what was being proposed and how open everyone was to the discussion we were having,” she said.

“The buzz from that was very, very strong and we all came away committed but maybe not with the best strategic plan for how to get things moving forward.”

Godbout said she like to see the Atlantica council work on that plan as well as creating much-needed alliances.

“So that all of the different communities, the chamber movement, government – federal and provincial – get on board with what it is we’re trying to create,” she said.

“The provincial governments need to get on board so that they’re attending these conferences and participating in these discussions. I think business leaders, larger companies in the area, could bring some private-sector money for these investments that need to be made. They need to be part of the discussion too.”

Tim Curry, president of the Atlantica Centre for Energy, is part of the six-person Atlantica council. While he couldn’t speak for the whole group, he said he expects they’ll achieve results.

“From what I’ve seen they have a bias to action, I’m expecting we’re going to try to move the yard sticks.” Curry said the group’s major challenge would be educating the public – including opponents – about what Atlantica is really all about.

Protests against Atlantica turned violent Friday, with 21 people arrested after clashes with Halifax police. Both protestors and police suffered minor injuries. Police have laid 70 charges in connection with Friday’s demonstration. A man and a woman have since released and will appear in court at a later date, while 19 others were in a Dartmouth jail until a Monday court appearance to face charges including unlawful assembly, assault to police, mischief and weapons-related offences.

“We know we have some folks outside on the street that have the wrong information and we have to make sure we can correct that by removing apprehension and misinformation,” said Curry.

– with files from the Canadian Press