When the rest of Canada reflects on its eastern shores, it conjures the Atlantic provinces as a tightly knit region of folksy, friendly people wise in the ways of the sea, perpetually determined to give the shirts off our backs, fiercely independent to a fault, yet broadly willing to throw down a kitchen party.
The truth is more complicated and, frankly, disappointing.
This small collection of principalities (hosting all of 2.5 million souls at last count) remains one of the most economically divided, socially backward and culturally anxious of any in a nation that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific and up to the Arctic Circle.
Although we are the putative birthplace of Confederation, we consistently maintain the worst track record in the country for interprovincial free trade. In fact we make it virtually impossible, in this region, for university students to transfer their credits from one institution to another; for skilled tradesmen and women to find meaningful work if they choose to leave the jurisdiction in which they received their accreditations; for doctors, lawyers and veterinarians to move between provinces without first obtaining professional papers proving that the practices of law and medicine are, somehow, locally relevant and compliant.
Sometimes, we litigate those who challenge the status quo, even if they had no intention of doing so.
Consider the shameful case against one Gerard Comeau who, not realizing he was on the wrong end of the judicial system, was caught crossing the border from Quebec into New Brunswick with 14 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor in 2012. According to an antiquated Prohibition-era law, that’s still a criminal offense, punishable by fines and jail time.
This summer, Mr. Comeau was on trial for violating the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act, which states that individuals are permitted to bring one bottle of wine or liquor or 12 pints of beer into the province at any given time.
According to a CBC analysis of the historical context underlying the case, “The Canadian law regarding the shipping of alcohol was meant to thwart bootleggers, and led to a gradual devolution of federal responsibility to the provinces in matters relating to liquor. Each province established an agency that oversees the distribution, sale and consumption of wine, beer and spirits.”
According to more than one legal expert, the regulation is both anachronistic and absurd. Declared Mark Hicken, a Vancouver attorney who specializes in interpreting Canada’s quirky interprovincial trade regulations: “A lawyer down in California once said to me, ‘You can’t understand any North American liquor laws unless you trace them back to Prohibition.’ You look at any regulatory structure in North America and if it was examined in a global perspective, you’d look at it in stunned disbelief, like ‘What is going on here?’ It really does go back to the Prohibition mentality of control.”
This mentality of control extends far beyond regulated substances in Atlantic Canada. It has to do with energy agreements, food, real estate and river rights. In fact, it has to do with how we live and work each and every day in a region where ancient, restrictive provincial laws concerning commerce and labour mobility no longer apply but are still rigorously and ludicrously enforced.
Unless we break these structures down to the ground, we will always be our own worst enemies.
We will never be able to be winners in our own backyards. We will never be able to sell to one another, to support our friends and neighbours with jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities, to become the fiercely independent, yet the friendly, folksy and integrated Atlantic Canadian community we have managed to persuade the rest of the country that we are today.
Our four provincial solitudes must finally come together in common cause. We need each other’s passions, energies and ideas, if only to tightly knit the best of our reputations with the truth of them.