Atlantic Canada is home to abundant natural resources and a history rich in entrepreneurship. Yet, we are often considered one of poorer regions of the country. Current and past Top 50 CEO award winners offer their thoughts on what’s preventing Atlantic Canada from being truly prosperous—and what can be done to turn things around
What do you see when you look in the mirror?
Lisa Browne, one of Atlantic Business Magazine’s 2017 Top 50 CEOs, finds that Atlantic Canadians need to start with themselves before looking to outside sources to improve the economy. She says the region needs to ignore negative stereotypes and focus on what they have or can accomplish with the right support.
“A child who is repeatedly told that they are poor or stupid eventually believes it,” says Browne, CEO of Stella’s Circle, a non-profit origination that helps people who face barriers, like mental illness and poverty, contribute to their communities.
“Celebrating successes is very important and being more positive, in general, is critical to create a sense of optimism and hope.”
She notes she is already seeing a shift in this mindset with more “doers” and entrepreneurs in the area. “There’s an energy in Atlantic Canada that I’ve never felt before,” says Browne. “We know that we can compete; we have world class institutions, activities and events. This positivity and pride are important and will help us to continue to be innovative.”
Andy Turnbull, CEO of the Nunacor Development Corporation and a two-time Top 50 award winner, has a similar view about the importance of a positive perspective. “It is often our own attitude that holds us back,” he says, explaining how negative perceptions have been a significant obstacle for indigenous communities. “Our business capacity is often underestimated and undervalued; we should be doing more to engage local indigenous groups.”
Turnbull suggests that one very practical way to engage the aboriginal population is to change government procurement policies in areas where there is a significant indigenous population. Making it mandatory for indigenous-owned businesses to be included in those contracts would demonstrate just how capable indigenous businesses are at providing those services, while also inspiring future indigenous entrepreneurial activity.
“We do not often celebrate our success and highlight our success stories, but instead allow the media to be dominated by the negatives,” says Turnbull.
Browne says history also has a role to play in counteracting negative stereotypes. Using Newfoundland as an example, Browne says the province has a “a strong history of being self-sufficient and entrepreneurial,” but there is also a longstanding belief that it joined Canada for government assistance. This led to a “stigma” that it, and by extension its businesses, couldn’t stand on their own.
“At Stella’s Circle, we’ve focused on social enterprise and we’ve been recognized nationally and internationally,” she says. “This type of self-reliance creates a sense of optimism and hope which in turn creates opportunity. There’s also more focus on partnership and collaboration which leads to innovation.”
Don’t be paralyzed by fear
Hubris may be a sin, but so too is excess humility according to four-time Top 50 CEO Cory Bell, president and CEO of Lindsay Construction. “Sometimes I feel we are too humble as a region and by doing so, we do not demand the attention we deserve for what we do well.”
He also feels that the region is obsessed with anticipating its next depression or economic downturn—and that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Long-term plans based on downsizing, anticipated loss of business and cutbacks can actually restrict growth.
“We are seeing a little of this now in Newfoundland and Labrador,” says Bell. “It took years for that province to believe in itself and begin investing in developments and infrastructure even when the oil royalties were flowing freely. As soon as oil dropped it took less than a fiscal quarter for development to stop.”
Peter Crooks, executive director of Canada’s Smartest Kitchen and founder and CEO of Idea2Market Inc., is another Top 50 CEO who would like to see increased self-confidence from regional businesses and organizations. “In Atlantic Canada, we strive to be in second place or (think) that second place is good enough,” he says. “We need to think more globally, believe in ourselves and our ability to compete anywhere in the world.”
The more things stay the same
“I have lived in all four Atlantic provinces; they are all very different and deservedly so, but the common vein is often a reluctance to do things differently and a general resistance to change,” says Crooks. “This will continue to stifle progress.”
For Crooks, ensuring immigrants and newcomers want to move to, and stay in Atlantic Canada, is integral to a ‘change’ culture. “We have to welcome and encourage immigration and diversity,” says Crooks. “They bring new perspectives and inspirations.”
Despite having a few immigrant success stories—like Peace by Chocolate in Antigonish, Nova Scotia and grooming and dog boarding business Lovely Doggy House in Fredericton, New Brunswick—the numbers aren’t promising.
Data from the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council states the number of immigrants coming to Atlantic Canada has tripled since 2002. Specifically, 8,300 immigrants settled in the area in 2015 and there were 11,600, including a high number of Syrian refugees, in 2016. Retention rates, however, are low. APEC found that Newfoundland has a 24 per cent retention rate after a decade. Prince Edward Island doesn’t fare much better at 33 per cent, while Nova Scotia and New Brunswick come in at 48 per cent and 35 per cent, respectively.
Crooks’ solution to this is simple: make the area attractive and welcoming. That way, Atlantic Canada is a place where newcomers want to live, not the place they have to live because they landed here.
“We have to raise the bar in everything we do,” Crooks says. “I believe we need a world-class global marketing campaign to attract the