Richard J. Currie doesn’t mince words. That’s his privilege, perhaps, as the former chairman of Bell Canada Enterprises Inc., former president of George Weston Limited, former president of Loblaw Companies Limited, a member of Canada’s Business Hall of fame, and Chancellor of the University of New Brunswick. And so when the native Saint Johner describes New Brunswick as a “failing province”, as he did at a luncheon address honouring the late Lord Beaverbrook in early November, people tend to listen.
“It is a failing province because the rest of Canada has been too indulgent towards it,” he said. “And like all indulged people or institutions, it has grown dependent on the largesse or generosity of a proverbial rich uncle. The decades of dependency brought to New Brunswick and all of the Maritimes, and indeed accepted by this region, comes from a rich uncle called the federal government… My greatest fear for Canada is that British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan get tired of shipping money east while having inadequate representation in Parliament and decide to leave. Think of it – Canada with Newfoundland and Labrador as the only ‘have’ province.”
Reaction across the province to Dr. Currie’s comments was immediate and decidedly mixed. Some applauded the executive for his candour. Others begged to differ. “The last thing we want is to create such a cloud of negativity that businesses stop investing, young people start moving out in greater numbers and we end up in a downward cycle where pessimism drives a self-fulfilling prophecy,” noted economic development consultant David Campbell observed in his regular Saint John Telegraph-Journal column. “The point is we are not a ‘failed’ province whatever that might mean. We are a place facing significant challenges but at the same time they are challenges with a clear path forward – if we make decision to get on that path.”
David Ganong, chairman of the world-famous chocolate company that bears his name, chuckles over the incident. “Well, Dr. Currie is known for his strong opinions,” he says. “But he is pointing to an urgent problem. We have a looming fiscal challenge in front of us. The world economy in the developed world is not going in the direction we’d like to see. Based on demographic trends, the G7 could be facing economic growth in the next 10 years of two per cent or less. That doesn’t bode well for New Brunswick because we are an exporting province.”
He pauses for a moment before pressing his point. “The second piece of the puzzle is transfer payments, which are coming up for renegotiation,” he says. “New Brunswick is the second most dependent in the country on federal transfer payments; these are 41 per cent of provincial government revenues. The last time we negotiated with Ottawa, we managed to pull together as a region with 10 per cent of the Canada’s population. Well, now we are not 10 per cent, and I am highly suspicious that we’d be able to act in unison again at this point. So these do create enormous fiscal challenges.”
Still, as both Ganong and Campbell note, New Brunswick fiscal problems are symptoms of larger fissures in the foundation of the provincial economy. And if the current debt and deficit woes are troubling, their solutions will only be found by addressing the systemic challenges of persistently high unemployment (nearing 10 per cent provincewide in October), and lacklustre research and development investment in the private sector. Simply put, New Brunswick’s economy must grow in new and productive ways. For this to happen, it must become a more creative, publicly engaged place of business. “All of us have to start pulling in the same direction,” Ganong says. “We need new strategies. And each of us must contribute our talents to the growth we need. The provincial government cannot be expected to solve these problems alone. Every New Brunswicker must have a role to play.”
Forging this consensus was, in fact, the objective of a unique two-day summit in Moncton on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. Dubbed Future NB, and co-chaired by Ganong and former New Brunswick Premier Camille Theriault, the event attracted more than 150 representatives from business, organized labour, education, health care, government and the not-for-profit sectors.
But, even before the opening ceremonies, it was clear the organizers’ main message had spread. Creativity, it seemed was in the air.
In a newspaper commentary, Constantine Passaris, a professor and chair of the department of Economics at the University of New Brunswick, offered his perspectives on solving the problem on unemployment. “Clearly, the solution to this Herculean problem requires us to think outside of the box,” he wrote. “The time has come to design a new economic institution that is directed to take a novel approach in eliminating unemployment. I propose the creation of the New Brunswick Employment Commission, whose singular mission is to promote full employment. The structure of this new commission should be non-political, at arm’s length from government and devoid of any government interference.”
Dr. Passaris continued: “The overarching purpose of this new institution will be to serve as an economic intelligence gathering and labour force forecasting unit, as well as a catalyst for full employment. The global economy is going through a process of renewal and transformational change. Old economy jobs are becoming obsolete and disappearing. New economy jobs are emerging that require new skills, talents and educational competencies.”
On what role research and development and information technology might play in reshaping the province’s fortunes, Larry Sampson, executive director of the New Brunswick Information Technology Council, added his voice in a separate commentary. “A white paper published by the technology CEPO Council lays out how the U.S. Federal Government can save $1-trillion by 2020 through the application of ICT. If we make similar assumptions about the potential savings, we end up with a figure in excess of $2-billion for New Brunswick, which would probably make a nice dent in the deficit.”
Sampson continued: “One of the keys is improving the competitiveness of our traditional industries. We only spend 40 per cent of what the U.S. invests in ICT to grow productivity, and as a consequence we’re only about 60 per cent as productive. Let’s focus on educating small and medium-sized enterprises in the province on the best practices for leveraging ICT in their sector, and helping them make the requisite changes. A province-wide two per cent increase in performance translates into an additional 7,000 jobs and $500-billion more in GDP, so the returns are well worth investing in.”
These are the type of ideas New Brunswick’s new government clearly welcomes. “Naturally, my goal is to create more prosperity and more jobs in the province,” says Paul Robichaud, minister of Economic Development and Business New Brunswick. “That’s how we will be able to invest in our crucial programs. So, I am planning to involve the private sector in more of our initiatives to create economic growth. I do believe that the private sector must be a full-time partner with the government. As I have always said, the government is not the job creator. As a government, we have to make sure we provide the tools that are necessary for private sector job creation.”
Ultimately, as a growing number of New Brunswickers are beginning to realize, the province’s future health will depend on an efficacious partnership involving all sectors of society. It will also require a near-constant focus on the instruments of prosperity and the strategies deployed to keep them sharp. The age of inattention, complacency and dependence on rich uncles, wherever they reside, is over.
If nothing else comes from this burgeoning enlightenment, then at least New Brunswick will not have failed its most important resource – its people.