Economic forecasts suggest most of Atlantic Canada will encounter slower growth in gross domestic product than the rest of the country over the next two years. The numbers are weak in the Maritimes and worse again in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the 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, decrease services, or borrow and increase the debt to provide more services to fewer people.
So what is to be done? Ottawa says it is committed to taking bold action in Atlantic Canada in five key areas: skilled workforce and immigration, trade and investment, innovation, clean growth and climate change, and infrastructure.
That’s the thrust behind the Atlantic Growth Strategy, which includes an innovative immigration plan unveiled last summer, designed to increase newcomers to the region by more than 2,000. It would fast-track citizenship for immigrants to come, invest and stay in Atlantic Canada.
Positive early proposals such as the immigration strategy prompted high hopes for the Atlantic Growth Strategy’s final report last week. So it was disappointing when its innovation subcommittee failed to provide an inspired strategy to boost our regional economies.
Instead, the growth strategy emphasizes a predictable, tired solution — more money from Ottawa and lots of it. Yes, federal support is welcome and necessary, but it can’t be the sole basis of an Atlantic economic strategy.
The Atlantic Growth Strategy calls on Ottawa to sharply ramp up financial support 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 growth strategy argues that social enterprises, and not just businesses, should be part of the federal plan. Subsidizing daycare and reducing homelessness by tackling addiction and mental illness are important, but it’s spending on social services — not infrastructure. It doesn’t lay groundwork for moving goods and enhancing trade and creating jobs in Atlantic Canada.
The goal of the Atlantic Growth Strategy is for the federal government and the Atlantic provinces to co-operate on shared priorities. Instead, it looks like a vision of more federal handouts.
We can’t seriously suggest that Ottawa just throw more money at our problems and somehow expect a different outcome.