by Quentin Casey

FREDERICTON – New Brunswick will likely play a secondary role to Nova Scotia when a study on building Atlantic Canada as a shipping and trade hub is released today.

Peter MacKay, the federal minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, will be in Halifax at noon to release a government-commissioned study of the so-called Atlantic Gateway.

The concept, of the Atlantic provinces as an entry and exit point for North American commerce, gets little play in New Brunswick. Premier Shawn Graham rarely mentions it.

But in Nova Scotia, it marks one of Premier Rodney MacDonald’s main pursuits.

“The reason that you don’t hear Premier Graham talking about it “¦ is because it probably doesn’t mean all that much for New Brunswick,” says Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based think-tank.

Cirtwill says Halifax is likely to be the central peg if the idea is deemed practical and worthy of millions in government funding.

Saint John, for example, would fit into a second tier of ports, with only some offshoot opportunities.

If New Brunswick is to benefit, he says, it will be in improvements to the highway corridor between Moncton and the United States – where incoming goods would flow to and from Halifax.

“But that doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t happen,” Cirtwill says of New Brunswick’s smaller role in the plan.

Far too much Maritime competition has meant some past projects have stalled – projects that would have benefited the entire region, he said.

There is currently stiff competition for what is known as federal gateway money. In the last federal budget $2.1 billion was allocated for gateway projects – basically efforts to boost trade to and within Canada.

A separate pot of one billion dollars has already been allotted to the west coast for similar projects.

The majority of the federal pot, about $1.7 billion, still remains for future projects, says David Harrigan, a spokesman with the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

And, he notes, the benefits will be regional, not Nova Scotia-centric.

“This report takes a look at the region, not just the port of Halifax,” he said.

The study, commissioned in January and headed by the Vancouver firm InterVistas, will not address specific projects or funding – just areas of potential benefit, Harrigan said.

“Is there a business case? Does it make sense to make major investments – not just by government but by the private sector, in the Atlantic Gateway?” he said.

Harrigan says a rise in goods shipped between East Asia and North America, through the Suez Canal, requires study of possible local involvement.

“How can we capitalize on all this new business that will be out there?” he said, noting the potential for many new jobs and economic spin-offs. “How do we ensure that our ports get it over U.S. ports?”

Officials with the Saint John Port Authority are eager to see the recommendations, having met with the report authors earlier this year.

Capt. Al Soppitt, the port’s president and CEO, acknowledges much of the recent focus has been on Nova Scotia.

He hopes the study will stress regional cooperation and provide a role for the ports in both Halifax and Saint John.

“I think all of Atlantic Canada has to play a large and cooperative part,” he said.

Thanks to close links with the U.S. and a proven rail network, the Saint John port is well positioned to benefit from the increased container traffic from developing economies in China and India, Soppitt said.