By Jim Meek 

REDMOND, Wash. – This is an innocent place – this small Seattle suburb that is home to Microsoft. Or so it seemed when I went out walking on Wednesday – in the early West Coast spring.

The biggest challenge of my stroll was not gawking at the Cascade mountains in the background as I dodged the BMWs and the Porsches in the foreground. And in a local park, I came across another index of wealth – a gathering of house fraus celebrating Valentine’s Day by feeding cake to their designer dogs.

So like I said, Redmond seems innocent enough – except that it’s the kind of place Halifax and Nova Scotia must compete against for new investment.

More to the point – for me, anyway – is the fact that this is the city that took my kid away. And now it’s got a grip on my only grandchild, too. Elinor Clara Meek, now 30 days old, was born on Jan. 18 on the far coast of a foreign country. And the fact that she lives 4,000 kilometres away is not merely an issue for me.

It also underlines the biggest challenge facing the benighted Eastern provinces of Canada – the exodus of our young.

Our son Colin’s story is common enough for a Maritime kid: He went to graduate school at the University of Michigan, where he met the wonderful woman who would later become his wife, Erika Pierson. After finishing his degrees at U-Mich, and following a fruitless (if desultory) search for work in Nova Scotia, Colin was offered a job he couldn’t refuse at Microsoft. So he now jogs daily to the computer software giant’s main campus, which employs 25,000 people in this city of 45,000 residents.

Like many other families, then, ours has lost members to the prosperous West. Other people’s kids have ended up in Fort McMurray or Calgary or Vancouver. Whatever the ultimate destination, the effect is the same – people are moving west to make new homes, and taking a big chunk of the economy with them.

In fact, the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council says 13,000 Atlantic Canadians moved to Alberta alone in the 12 months ending last July. According to APEC, this migration left companies back home scrambling to keep or attract staff.

What can we do to reverse this trend?

That’s the question, and it struck me this week that Nova Scotia politicians and journalists – this one included – do precious little to address it. Surely, in the face of the economic challenges that author Donald Savoie and others have outlined, we have more important issues to deal with than the fate of Rodney’s marriage, the repair costs for Ernie Fage’s Volkswagen, or the details from last night’s police blotter.

Politics, crime and the courts – coverage of all three amounts to shooting fish in a barrel. It is the journalism of least resistance.

What’s more important?

Let’s start with the fact that we’re falling further behind our North American competitors, in terms of per capita income, economic growth and productivity. Let’s address the R&D gap in this region. Research and its commercialization are key indicators of future economic health. Again, this is an area where we lag behind – whether we measure business R&D spending per capita, or government support for research.

And whatever happened to innovation guru Kelvin Ogilvie’s report recommending support for environmental technologies? Or to Savoie’s prescription for economic growth: the transfer of federal jobs to the region, reduced dependence on EI, and free-market solutions?

It’s a tall order, then, figuring out how Nova Scotia can compete in the world. And after my search for answers this week, I noticed that the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) just recommended a special tax break for regional companies that actually do commercial research. This is hardly a revolutionary idea, but it’s a start. And governments might implement it if we start pushing politicians to act. It may be too late to repatriate my son from Redmond, and – frankly – I’m glad he’s followed his heart and his opportunity to this town.

But with better public policies, we might manage to keep a few more good kids home in Atlantic Canada. Lord knows, we’d be better off if we gave them decent opportunities here, and a chance to stay home and prosper.

Jim Meek is a freelance writer in Halifax. He also works for Bristol Communications as editor of The Inside Out Report, a quarterly journal based on public opinion research.