New Brunswick

Author asks: what's been holding the Maritimes back?

Donald Savoie's new book, Looking for Bootstraps — Economic Development in the Maritimes, takes a look at the region's lack of economic development and hopes to spark a fresh debate on how to change it.

Donald Savoie says much of the problem with economic growth started 150 years ago, with Confederation

In his new book, Donald Savoie, Canada Research Chair in public administration at the University of Moncton, looks at the Maritime region's economic struggles. (Acadia University Communications)

It takes more than a look in the mirror for Maritimers to understand why they continue to lag behind the rest of the country,  says the author of a new book on the Maritime economy.

Concerned about the region's future, Donald Savoie, the Canada Research Chair in public administration at the University of Moncton, wanted to investigate the region's slow or absent economic development.

But with his new book, Looking for Bootstraps — Economic Development in the Maritimes, he also wanted to spark a fresh debate on how to change it.

Savoie said he saw two economic hot spots, Western Europe and the eastern seaboard of the U.S., and wondered why the growth they enjoyed skipped the Maritimes, which is "strategically located right in the middle."

"I set out to answer that question."

Geographic, political issues

Much of the problem, he said, started 150 years ago, with Confederation.

By then, the region had developed strong economic ties, even growing markets, in the West Indies, Europe and New York, he said.

But after Confederation, Canada's economy became much more east-west directed, with companies moving out of the country's periphery into the more central areas of Quebec and Ontario.

Confederation did not deal us a good hand. We were annexed to Ontario and Quebec. The agenda was Ontario and Quebec. It remains the agenda.- Donald Savoie , author

"Confederation did not deal us a good hand," he said. "We were annexed to Ontario and Quebec. The agenda was Ontario and Quebec. It remains the agenda."

The Maritime region couldn't necessarily solve the resulting problems by pulling itself up by its own bootstraps.

Even during the Second World War, industry was set up in Ontario and Quebec, with 30-odd Crown corporations established to build airplanes and warships in those provinces, rather than using the harbours in Halifax and Saint John, he said.

Once Maritimers realized where the jobs were, many of them headed west, he said.

"And that process still continues, by the way," he said. "So bootstraps are much easier to be had in Ottawa."

Keeping up with global changes

Today, globalization is changing the economy, and the region benefits from free trade agreements with countries such as the U.S. and Mexico, said Savoie.

But the Maritime provinces still remain only small competitors on the grander, world stage, he said.

"We now have to compete in that global economy, and does it make sense for three little jurisdictions to compete against one another? The answer is no," he said.

Savoie advocates the rather unpopular idea of a Maritime union for the future, though he doesn't expect that will happen anytime soon.

"It's very, very, very politically difficult to say, 'Look, we need to do this," he said.

I think we as Maritimes could look into the mirror and say 'could we have done better, could we do better?' I think the answer is yes.- Donald Savoie , author

"But you know, momentum in economic development takes a long time to build, and so we are in the process, and I think the region, if you look ahead, there are things we could do, that we are not doing, that we ought to be doing."

Savoie expects the Maritimes will go through a time of crisis that may force people to look for change.

It's not just decisions involving geography and national policy that hurt the region.

"I think we, as Maritimes, could look into the mirror and say 'could we have done better, could we do better?' I think the answer is yes."

What the Maritimes could do

While the region may not be able to compete with other jurisdictions on everything, Savoie said there are areas where it could, and should, be growing, including fisheries and agriculture, human resources and skills development, and tourism.

"There's a number of things that we can do and that we are doing," he said. "Let's look at what we can do better than the other regions. Let's go for it."

Looking for Bootstraps is Savoie's second book on the economy, and comes after his Visiting Grandchildren, published in 2006. 

With files from Information Morning Fredericton

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