We have growth in Atlantic Canada, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Our population is growing older, unemployment numbers are trending upwards and out-migration of young people is increasing yearly.
Economic forecasts suggest most of Atlantic Canada will encounter slower GDP growth than the rest of the country over the next two years. Maritime numbers are weak but things are worse in Newfoundland and Labrador where a volatile oil and gas industry has left the province without its major source of revenue.
Disturbing 2016 census figures reveal a big problem for Atlantic Canada. Provincial tax revenues will decrease and this will place pressure on governments to raise taxes, lower the level of services, or borrow and increase the debt to provide more services to fewer people.
So what is to be done? Ottawa says it’s remains firmly committed to take bold action in Atlantic Canada within five economic pillars – skilled workforce and immigration, trade and investment, innovation, clean growth and climate change, and Infrastructure.
Boosting those five pillars is the thrust behind the Atlantic Growth Strategy (AGS). The AGS played a key role with an innovative immigration strategy unveiled last summer, designed to increase newcomer numbers by more than 2,000 to the region. It would fast-track citizenship for immigrants to come, invest and stay in Atlantic Canada.
Positive early proposals such as the immigration strategy generated high hopes for the AGS’s final report last week. So it was disappointing when the AGS innovation subcommittee failed to provide a vision or innovative strategy to boost our regional economies.
Instead, the AGS put its emphasis on a predictable, tired solution of more money from Ottawa and lots of it. Yes, some federal support is welcome and necessary but it can’t be the sole basis of an Atlantic economic strategy.
The AGS calls on Ottawa to sharply ramp up financial support in the region even though the Atlantic provinces already get more federal funding for economic development than Quebec, Ontario, or Western Canada.
Economic hopes based on federal infrastructure spending are now being tempered with the growing realization that federal cash isn’t being directed at usual projects such as roads, bridges and ports. Most of the spending is going to green projects and social infrastructure.
The AGS argues that social enterprises, and not just businesses, should also be part of the federal strategy. Subsidizing daycare and reducing homelessness by tackling addiction and mental illness are important but this is spending on social services - not infrastructure. It doesn’t lay the groundwork for moving goods and enhancing trade and laying the foundation for jobs in Atlantic Canada.
The goal of the AGS is for the federal government and the Atlantic provinces to co-operate on shared priorities. Instead, it looks like the vision being offered is for more federal handouts.
We can’t seriously suggest that Ottawa should just throw more money at our problems and somehow expect there will be a different outcome.