Atlantic Canada must strive for greater integration of its health care, post-secondary education and economic development, says the head of an influential economic think tank.

“We need to push the envelope on how we look for consolidation of services in areas related to education and health,” said Elizabeth Beale, president and CEO of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council.

Such co-operation should aim to improve the quality of those services as well as reducing costs, she said.

“I simply don’t think we have the luxury any more of being able to operate distinct provincial programs in many areas that we have in the past.”

Atlantic provincial co-operation must also extend beyond health and education, she said.

Instead of competing against each other using government subsidies to lure in new businesses, the four provinces should work together on strategic goals such as ensuring the transportation infrastructure can accommodate the needs of businesses, she said.

Beale was among the speakers at a two-and-a-half day forum at Mount Allison University on the Atlantic Canadian economy that ended Saturday. As business leaders prepare to meet this week in Halifax to discuss the Atlantica trade bloc encompassing the Atlantic region and New England, she was urging a new sort of political co-operation between the Atlantic provinces.

“Can we re-imagine Atlantic Canada? We absolutely have to. The status quo is simply not going to deliver the results that we our families need here in this region,” she said.

Beale said the region’s rapidly aging citizenry, along with the subsequent need for more expensive health care and a stagnating or declining population growth in the four provinces, are the main drivers behind the need to amalgamate services in the four provinces.

The Atlantic provinces are also facing a shift in the federal government’s transfer funding model towards a per capita basis.

The Conservative government’s approach to fixing the so-called fiscal imbalance means the bulk of new federal money – 80 per cent – will be sent to Ontario, Quebec and Alberta, with the remaining seven provinces splitting the other 20 per cent, Beale said.

“There’s no reason that we can’t move to regional health authorities that move beyond provincial boundaries,” she said.

“We are already doing that with our children’s health system with respect to a base in Halifax and integrated services that flow into that. That model can be used in other areas.”

Provincial co-operation must also stretch beyond health care and into post-secondary education, she said.

“Over the next 10 years we face very substantial slides in terms of the pool of young people who will be coming into the post-secondary education system,” she said.

The decline in post-secondary education enrolment is particularly troublesome for universities, given that roughly half of their revenue comes from tuition fees.

As the younger population in the region dwindles and funding for post-secondary education remains flat – or worse, it declines – universities will be hard-pressed to offer the calibre of programs that will keep students from going to other provinces such as Ontario to pursue their education, she said.

“To me this is an enormous risk for the region because it is the institutions on the higher education side who we really need to drive an agenda around innovation and growth,” she said.

Greater co-operation between the post-secondary education systems in the four provinces, including the elimination of many duplicated programs, can reduce costs while allowing universities to specialize, she said.

Beale is also urging for integration of the community college system in Atlantic Canada.

Such integration will also allow colleges to eliminate duplication and focus limited funds on ensuring students have access to the latest technologies and practices used by industry.

Beale said Atlantic Canada has little choice but to pursue amalgamation of its health care system, post-secondary institutions and economic development agencies.

“We can’t simply be the poor cousin of the Canadian federation and think we’re going to get ahead,” she said.

“We’re not.

“Things have to change and they have to change substantially.”