By Chris Morris 
The Canadian Press

The idea of creating an economic zone on the east coast of North America called Atlantica is stirring strong feelings both for and against the ambitious proposal.

An international conference, to be held later this week in Saint John, will bring together business leaders, trade experts and scholars interested in forging new economic links between Atlantic Canada and the northeastern United States.

Brian Lee Crowley of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a non-profit think-tank based in Halifax and a driving force behind the Atlantica movement, said Tuesday it’s an opportunity for the region to better take advantage of free trade.

“From an economic point of view, we’re clearly in this together,” Crowley said of Atlantic Canada and the northeastern United States.

“I think having made the decision to have continental free trade, we now have to figure out how to make it work in everybody’s interest. Atlantica is just a tiny piece of that larger conversation between our two countries.”

Crowley and Atlantica proponents say that unless Canada’s East Coast becomes a more cohesive economic unit, Atlantic Canada is doomed to continue its “genteel decline.”

“Atlantic Canada is not just a relatively poor region within Canada, it is actually part of a relatively poor region within North America,” he said.

“We have common problems and perhaps there are common solutions.”

But Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, a lobby group that has long opposed free trade, says Atlantica is a step towards creating “Fortress North America,” where the Canadian identity would be swallowed by the U.S. economy.

Barlow said any effort to remove business barriers between Canada and the United States threatens social programs, health care, workers’ rights and the environment.

“It (Atlantica) is part of a larger plan for integration of our economies in North America, which some of us are calling Fortress North America,” Barlow said in an interview.

“They’re not talking about just more trade. They’re talking about Atlantic Canada and New England becoming a free trade zone, friendly for business and friendly for conditions that make more money for big business.”

Barlow said the Atlantica conference, which starts Thursday, is actually the first of several such conferences to be held across Canada.

She said the effort to forge closer links with the United States is being driven by Ottawa and Washington and would require Canadians to buy into the Bush administration’s war on terror.

As well, she said Americans would demand more and more concessions from Canada to keep the border open.

“Canadians need to stop and ask ourselves, ‘Do we want to be like the country that has the deepest inequalities in the world?’ ” Barlow said.

“The United States has surpassed Latin America as having the deepest inequality between rich and poor.”

Barlow and other opponents of the proposal will have their own meetings at the same time the Atlantica conference.

She will be joined at the anti-Atlantica meeting by representatives of the Canadian Labour Congress and the Maine Fair Trade Campaign.