Why do failures overshadow the many success stories?
by Don Cayo


Journalists, both the home-grown and the come-from-away, write endlessly about economic failures down East. Indeed, it seems there’s little time on the air or space in the paper left to say much about successes.
The reason, I think, is that we scribes love to chase the public agenda. That’s set largely by those connected to government, whether the spin doctors of those in power or the righteously indignant who’d like to be. And (Is there a lesson here?) in this neck of the woods, government is involved up to its ear-holes in virtually all of the large-scale failures. But it’s hard to pin down much more than a vague policy link to most of the successes.

So the cod collapse, the overdue closing of a Cape Breton coal mine, yet another multi-million-dollar bail-out for an aging steel mill – these are the things that make the headlines. Last week it was another “final” plan – the fourth or the fifth, I believe – to re-vitalize the Acadian Peninsula, an area in northeast New Brunswick where even the official jobless rate is well over 25 per cent. A week or so before it was the millions down the drain in a failed attempt to subsidize a fledgling textile industry. . . . You get the point.

But did you know that a very substantial part of the Atlantic fishery has not collapsed? Or that last year it netted the region more income than ever before? Have you heard or read about the thousands of fishermen who’ve made a smooth and successful transition to catching higher value species? About the plants – not all of them, but enough to matter — that have greatly enhanced their product lines and, consequently, the duration and quality of jobs they offer? Did you know we’ve begun importing half a billion dollars a year worth of under-processed fish to keep our plants busy, instead of shipping out our own raw catches the way the Prairies traditionally shipped their grain?

If there’s an agriculture story in the news down here, you can bet it’s about farmers seeking aid to cope with this woe or that – not the industry’s record of creating seven processing, packaging and delivery jobs for every one in the field. If the story is aquaculture, it’s about a specific pollution problem or disease, not the growing of an industry from nothing to hundreds of millions of dollars in little more than a decade. Forestry stories focus on potential shortfalls of wood, not the very real revolution that is seeing scores of plants extract far more value from every stick we harvest.

Even in the new economy, we’re prone to focus more on the tens of information technology companies that fail than the hundreds that succeed. And when our four Atlantic telephone companies – the greatest drivers of economic growth we’ve seen this decade – announced merger plans last month, the nervous nellies streamed out of the woodwork. The government spin was not about the opportunities for tomorrow’s jobs that this move creates. It was about protecting yesterday’s.

I don’t suggest that none of our troubles are real – or worthy of note. But our priorities do seem to be out of whack.

What we seem to be developing is an increasingly two-tier society. On one hand are those who talk endlessly about clever plans to create, or more frequently to save, jobs. And then there are those who just go ahead and do it.

I suppose it was ever thus. But for three decades or more government has been such a dominant factor in our economy down here, and it is becoming such an impotent one now, that I fear for the future of those who continue to put their faith in the power of patronage and five-year plans. Annual bouts of Employment Insurance has eroded from a viable career choice a few years ago, to a barely tenable way to get by today. The subsidies that kept uncompetitive firms in business are going the way of the cod – and may be even less likely to come back. Government departments themselves are employing fewer and fewer people these days. Even make-work projects – a mainstay for years in many an Atlantic community – are becoming a thing of the past.

That’s not an encouraging picture for the poor folks of the Acadian Peninsula – the unemployed victims featured in this region’s most recent story-of-the-week. They’ve already been “helped” by massive fisheries subsidies that built capacity to the point it killed the stocks; by fly-by-night manufacturing plants that lasted only as long as the government hand-outs; and by more make-work projects than the area has ditches to clear or graveyards to fix up. Do they really think their bacon will be saved by yet another report?

Premier Camille Theriault seems to be not so sure. He’s going to study the recommendations in the report. And then, no doubt, he’ll get back to worried residents of the region – just in time for the provincial election campaign expected this spring.