by Charles Cirtwill

Will Saint John ever be a hub port, a global gateway to the complex ties that bind our world economy together? No, or at least not until Nova Scotia sinks into the sea.

Does this mean Saint John will not grow? Of course not. Saint John has major opportunities before it as an energy port, in the handling of bulk and break-bulk cargo and in cruise traffic to name a few.

Our problem is that after the first two sentences above the “players” in Saint John were cursing and drafting their response op-eds suggesting I am ill-informed and narrow-minded. The same thing would happen if I pointed out that southern communities like Moncton, Truro and Saint John will see growth as a result of a true long combination vehicle route through this region. Campbellton and Bathurst would be asking where their twinned highways and transshipment facilities are, and someone would be accusing me, or the premier of New Brunswick, of abandoning rural communities to their fate.

Similarly, Edmundston would not be happy to see talk of a twinned highway from Saint John to St. Stephen, and Belledune would be loudly reminding everyone that a port exists there, too.

I wish I could say I know all of this because I have been gifted with foresight. If so, I would be at the roulette tables in Vegas and not writing this piece. Unfortunately, I know it because it has all already occurred, in basically the sequence I outlined above.

This is not a uniquely New Brunswick disease. Ottawa, Charlottetown and St. John’s are all asking what’s in the Gateway for Islanders and Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. Nova Scotia actually is ahead of them all, having created “Rodney’s wish list,” a hodgepodge of local infrastructure projects designed to balance competing provincial political interests using federal cash. Is the dredging of Sydney harbour, the twinning of the highway to Port Hawkesbury, or a paved rail cut in south-end Halifax of regional interest? Possibly, such projects could add to our total regional pie. Are they regional priorities? Not today, and likely not tomorrow, next week, or next year either.

Regional priorities are defined at the regional level. They are about connecting our region to the global and continental grid. They are not about connecting our individual communities to that grid.

They also involve something called “differential benefits.” Differential benefits mean some people will get more benefits than others (a twinned highway from Saint John to the border will deliver more gain to Saint John than to Edmundston). They also – and this appears to be the hardest one to swallow so far – often involve solving other people’s problems (the missing length of twinned Trans-Canada Highway in Quebec, the weight restrictions on the Maine interstate, the challenges of the short-line rail connections in the U.S. northeast, the congestion at Indian ports).

Unfortunately, the political solution to these problems is the Nova Scotia approach: focus on local projects, swapping one project for another until you end up with a little for everyone. Problem being, this tends to have three unavoidable effects: real priorities get delayed or ignored, projects that are not truly regional in nature slip onto the list, and we remain obsessed about what’s in it for us and lose track of what’s in it for all of us.

Political solutions are inherently about lowering expectations, pleasing as many as possible with as little as possible and making sure no one really “wins.” If we want to be bigger than we are, we need to act bigger than that.

Charles Cirtwill is the executive vice president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (, an independent, non-partisan, public policy think-tank based in Halifax.