After writing about Maritime Canada for more than 30 years and seeing its problems repeat themselves, seemingly endlessly, I’ve come to the conclusion that we spend too much time talking about the wrong things.
We Maritimers love to talk. But what have we been saying?
Listen to us in our collective voice, because that is what others hear. They don’t hear Islanders, Nova Scotians or New Brunswickers. They hear Maritimers. We’re all lumped together, sort of like a Maritime Union everywhere except in the Maritimes.
What they also hear is us obsessing over our smallness and our fears of being forgotten by the rest of Canada, which always gets bigger as we always shrink.
That growing size and power gap feeds our chronic insecurity; we tremble when Ottawa cools to us or when uninformed Canadians complain about Maritimers drawing more from Confederation than we contribute. We take such talk — and mostly that’s all it is — as a threat.
We know we need to repower our economy, but we also worry about the potential of big business to dominate our lives and corrupt our environment. Yet the governments we elect crave instant industrial fixes to our never-ending scarcity of jobs.
Some fairy dust solution is always coming along: liquefied natural gas, the pipeline from the West, energy from Labrador, naval shipbuilding or the industrialization of our fisheries and farms, to give just a few examples.
But how would big industry solve our problems here when it isn’t solving problems elsewhere?
There’s also no point belaboring our demographics. We’re getting older because we live in an economy that is itself mature and far too concentrated. We depend too much on spending by government and public institutions, on our scant natural resources and a scattering of industries, themselves dominated by the Irving interests, Michelin and the like.
That makes our jobs vulnerable when government slows down or when unexpected change happens, as it has in the fishery, mining, forestry and papermaking, with devastating and disruptive results.
These are all facts Maritimers already know to at least some degree of discomfort. We all know we need jobs for our young people and pathways out of dependence and conservatism. But just knowing it isn’t enough. We need more.
In fact, we need a champion, something we haven’t had for years.
We need someone to make our case in Ottawa and with the rest of Canada. Granted, it’s a tall order. An effective champion would need the negotiating skills of Frank McKenna, the commitment of Danny Williams, the courage of Bill Casey, the insight of Donald Savoie and the charisma of Peter MacKay.
We know we need better leadership. But are we doing enough to identify and support new leaders? Or are we stuck with our time-honoured “tall-poppy syndrome,” in which we resent our most promising potential champions?
No wonder McKenna decided life was simpler and more rewarding to work for a big bank, rather than face the slings and arrows of public life in a region with a high percentage of complainers.
Our voice must be heard but it has to be heard with messages that resonate with other Canadians. We have to knock off the nostalgia for the good old days of tall ships and iron men.
The message can’t be overtly political either. The federal government doesn’t have friends, only interests. Same goes for the rest of the provinces.
Someone has to tell the country that it’s in the best interests of all Canadians to help protect ours.
The current government in Ottawa evidently does not see the Maritimes as a vital interest. We’re barely an afterthought in the battle over votes in Ontario and the West.
That’s why we need human currency, in the form of leadership from within, to inspire confidence in our people, encourage investment by our businesses and to rally support for the region in Ottawa.
Right now, the Maritimes has too few friends and lacks powerful advocates. The only legitimate power figure in the whole region is Peter MacKay. Somehow, that has to change. The legacy of backwardness and complacency has to be replaced by a new energy and new confidence to face the future.
We need a champion. It’s overdue.
Dan Leger is a journalist based in Halifax and author of a forthcoming book on Mike Duffy and the Senate expense scandal.