Don’t blow it

With the recent election win in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Liberal sweep of Atlantic Canada is now complete. I don’t know if this has ever happened before, but it is certainly historic in the context of the opportunity it presents. The Prime Minister’s engaging manner and embracing style suggest the acrimony which has dogged some federalprovincial relations in the past is indeed in the past. For the foreseeable future at least, it will be replaced by a spirit of collaboration and cooperation.

This opportunity to shape and reshape policy could not have come at a more opportune time. Atlantic Canada has the worst demographics in the country, the worst provincial balance sheets and a population more dispersed (i.e. less urbanized) than anywhere else in Canada. The significance of this latter point is not particularly well understood. Essentially, the more concentrated a population, the easier and less expensive it is to serve. One only need count the number of hospitals in the region or look at the expense of maintaining transportation infrastructure (ferries, bridges, etc…) to understand the point.

The recently produced “One Nova Scotia” report describes initiatives which its authors believe are crucial to getting that province’s economy headed in the right direction. This report could just as easily be titled the “One Atlantic Canada” report because what ails Nova Scotia ails the other provinces and what will help Nova Scotia will likewise help the other provinces. Our region is not wellsuited to change, but change we must. We can either have it forced upon us, driven by financial imperatives and a policy agenda in which we have little choice, or we can seize the moment and work together to rebuild Atlantic Canada.

Small changes won’t work. Infrastructure investment which disburses money to new sidewalks in community A and an upgraded sewer system in community B and a new rink in C will not help in any meaningful way. We need big picture reform.

The report mentioned above suggests one worthwhile initiative is to focus on the ICT sector as a job creator. Implementing this recommendation requires a lot of things to happen. First, we have to reform the public school system’s focus on math and the sciences. One province in Canada (and I don’t know which one) has the best math program in the country. One, maybe the same one, has the best science program. Please tell me why Atlantic Canada can’t be best in class in both! We need to commit to making that happen. As much as I despair at the extent to which we have allowed our respective teachers’ unions to run the education system, we need to work with them to make this happen. Our universities need to examine their course curricula to assess whether students are being taught how to problem solve and think for themselves. Our public policy agenda needs to encourage and demand this happens. And finally the electorate, the business community, everyone needs to get behind such an initiative. This is too important to dismiss with platitudes.

The same recipe of comprehensive reform has to be applied to every other big picture initiative: immigration, so we get the right immigrants (job creators who stay and contribute to the economy); health care, so we can reduce wait times and avoid the crushing burden headed our way as the population ages; geography, using our knowledge of and proximity to the ocean to build a whole new industrial enterprise. To realize our potential we have to stop competing with each other, province to province and university to university, and work together to compete with, and in, the world.

This will take bravery at every decision-making level, right from parents deciding upon the importance of education and getting more involved through to business and political leaders refocusing on longer term goals. CEOs need to explain to shareholders, investors and lenders why focusing on the longer term will produce worthwhile returns. Political leaders need to lead the polls and the media’s perception of popular opinion, not follow them. The purpose, value and risks of change need to be explained, and explained again.

My God, I hope this will happen.

John Risley
About John Risley

John Risley, president of Clearwater Fine Foods Inc., regularly engages in policy debate as a member of the World Presidents' Organization, the Chief Executives Organization and as a director on the Board of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

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