Out of Atlantica

Proponents envision powerful new financial zone encompassing Atlantic Canada, southern Quebec, northeastern United States

Eva Hoare
Business Reporter

Take a gigantic chalkboard eraser and wipe away the borders between Atlantic Canada and the northeastern United States.

That’s what the creators of Atlantica want to do, especially when it comes to trade.

They envision this zone, known as the International Northeast Economic Region, as the next major financial mecca.

Atlantica is, as its proponents believe, a new financial and geographic state (in name and trade routes only) encompassing Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and southern Quebec on the Canadian side, and Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and upstate New York on the American side.

“We want it to be a seamless border,” said Dianne Kelderman, president of the Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce, a body that got in on the ground floor of Atlantica.

She and other Atlantica advocates say such a region will open up Nova Scotia to trade that hasn’t been seen for years, making Halifax, with its massive port, a gateway to financial markets throughout the northeast and even into the lucrative midwestern U.S. and its epicentre, Chicago.

Eight million people live inside Atlantica’s borders, bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the east, north and west by Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, and on the south by the I-90 to Buffalo and the southern borders of Vermont and New Hampshire.

Three years ago, the story of Atlantica was born out of a strong belief by some that the creation of an international trade corridor between this region and the northeastern U.S. is more possible than ever because of globalization and shifts in economic activity.

The region was officially declared on Sept. 30 in Bangor, Me., with the launching of the Atlantica council, said Ms. Kelderman. (It also has its own website, wwwatlantica.org.)

Advocates say Atlantica is at the convergence point for three of the world’s largest trading relationships – the North American Free Trade Agreement, the European Union-NAFTA alliance and the Suez Express Route from Asia.

Atlantica often is seen only as a trading relationship among the provinces and states involved, but those in favour of the zone argue it’s much more than that; they envision it as a thoroughfare or corridor for trade.

“It’s not about us buying and selling (among members),” said Brian Lee Crowley, who heads the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, based in Halifax, and one of the founders of the Atlantica concept. (The name comes from the title of a book by Perry Newman, the honorary consul for Canada in Maine.)

Showcasing this region, especially Halifax, as a “unique port of entry” for trade is an important part of the program, said Mr. Crowley.

He noted that 43 per cent of all goods transported on trucks between Canada and the U.S. passes through the Atlantica region.

“If you’re not a destination or on the route, you’re nowhere,” he said.

Mr. Crowley and other Atlantica backers have been talking up the concept, speaking with Commons standing committees on foreign affairs and various chambers of commerce on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.

Ms. Kelderman said the response has been highly positive and the concept’s time has come.

“It’s very positive from both sides of the border, both from the business community as well as the political community,” she said. “People are starting to see.”

Like-minded backers maintain the Atlantica concept is nothing new; in fact, Mr. Crowley said, similar trading regions that take advantage of their geography and transportation capabilities are already operating in North America.

He points to Cascadia, which includes British Columbia and the states of Washington and Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest Economic Region.

“We’re kind of the last ones to get in the game,” said Mr. Crowley. “We’ve got to play some catch-up here.”

These kinds of grassroots trade regions reveal that commerce is not just happening in countries’ capitals, he said.

Giving this new proposed trading region a name is paramount, said Mr. Crowley.

“Naming things is important,” he said. “It’s a point of reference. There’s a rational economic region here, but people are not yet aware. Let’s give it a name.”

But some question whether the concept could ever get off the ground, because of all the provinces and states involved.

Al Miciak, dean of the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, said he doesn’t have a problem with the Atlantica vision.

But he wondered whether the goal is possible, given the number of provinces and states involved – not to mention existing trade barriers.

“When we can’t sort of co-ordinate at the provincial level,” he said, it’s hard to see that co-operation “extend to the Atlantic level.”

“It’s the interprovincial problems that we have,” said the dean. “Everyone is very protective of what they do have.”

Nova Scotia and New Brunswick development officers often battle it out in attempts to lure more business to their provinces.

The most recent war, however hard-fought, involved New Brunswick basically “circumventing” its own rules to lure Molson to establish a multimillion-dollar brewery in Moncton, Mr. Miciak said.

He also noted how long it took the countries of the European Union to get together.

“This was a very, very years’ long process,” said the dean, adding that, ultimately, participating nations gave up some sovereignty in the form of their currency by adopting the euro.

Mr. Miciak wondered whether the provinces and states involved, although the Atlantica proposal wouldn’t be as extensive, would be willing to form such a region.

Politicians, although paying the concept “lip service,” don’t appear to have climbed on board the Atlantica bandwagon in as big a way as the private sector, he said.

Ernie Fage, the province’s economic development minister, said the province is interested in the Atlantica concept.

“Any time you see a renewed effort for more co-operation and trade and economic activity (with) the United States and Eastern Canada, I think that’s a great idea,” Mr. Fage said in an interview Thursday.

“Government needs to get a better understanding of what they’re exactly proposing. I think the key is examining the organizations that are doing a good job of co-ordinating and promoting.” (He was referring to the New England states’ politicians and business people and the Council of Maritime Premiers.) Ms. Kelderman said there have been more than nods of agreement among politicians involved. The state of Maine is behind Atlantica, she said, and Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm has also been very supportive.

There is also backing from Ottawa, with members of the Atlantica movement being invited to a Dec. 7 dinner hosted by Senator John Buchanan, formerly Nova Scotia premier. (Mr. Buchanan is chairman of the U.S.-Canadian Parliamentary Committee.)

“Stuff is starting to happen right now,” she said. “I’m really amazed and delighted to see how quickly this has taken root.”

Ms. Kelderman said she doesn’t believe forming such a union of provinces and states will take nearly as long as the European Union did.

In part, the reasoning behind a quicker arrival at Atlantica rests with a unanimity of all the premiers involved, in addition to a strong commercial will, she said.

Easing transportation and other border-related restrictions is paramount, and that kind of strategy must be worked out, said Ms. Kelderman, noting that Bangor-bound air passengers out of Halifax may soon be able to clear customs here. (Bangor recently removed its objections to pre-clearance in Halifax.)

“I think the timing is right,” she said. “We have four premiers who happen to be Conservative premiers,” which makes it easier to move ahead.

“They get along very well. I think we’re going to see some things happen that have been untraditional.”

Mr. Crowley said he shares the optimism, mentioning a number of American politicians who back the concept.

Many were not available for comment last week due to the American Thanksgiving holiday, but Jonathan Daniels, president and CEO of the Eastern Maine Development Corp., along with Halifax businessman Neville Gilfoy, were elected co-chairmen of Atlantica this fall.

“I think it has clearly gathered a lot of momentum in just the last three years we’ve been working on it,” Mr. Crowley said.