Why Maritime Union Is a Bad Idea: An Environmental Historian’s Perspective

Fraser Companies Ltd.’s pulp mill in Edmundston, New Brunswick, circa 1950s. Fraser was one of several large pulp and paper companies in New Brunswick that benefitted from the regional economic development programs in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly through increased control of the province’s Crown (public) forests. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, P225-1929)

By Mark McLaughlin

[Originally published on the Historians of the Environment of the Atlantic Region blog]

Maritime Union, or one united Maritime province, is an idea that predates Canada. The original rationale for the 1864 Charlottetown Conference, which eventually led to Canadian Confederation (1867), was a meeting of Maritime leaders to discuss some form of union between their respective colonies. The idea has resurfaced periodically ever since then, often proposed as a solution for what are perceived as the region’s economic woes. The most recent revival occurred in November 2012, when three Conservative senators, Nova Scotia’s Stephen Greene, New Brunswick’s John Wallace, and Prince Edward Island’s Mike Duffy, offered Maritime Union as a way to combat soaring provincial deficits and high unemployment.[i] Media commentators, such as John Ibbitson in The Globe and Mail and the editorial board of the National Post, wholeheartedly endorsed the idea in the days and weeks that followed.[ii]

This recent national discussion about Maritime Union lacked historical perspective and was saturated with neoliberal assumptions. While many reasons have been offered as to why Maritime Union is a good idea, I want to address one policy area that has not received much attention — natural resource management. My interest in the matter stems from my doctoral research on the environmental history of forest management in New Brunswick at the University of New Brunswick, and the fact that I am a New Brunswicker, born in Perth-Andover and raised nearby on a small family farm. As an environmental historian, I am concerned that this latest discussion about Maritime Union is relying upon the same type of reasoning that has been used to manage natural resources in the region.

I am troubled by, as Tim Harper put it in The Toronto Star when addressing Maritime Union, “the Wal-Mart approach to Confederation.”[iii] Essentially, it is the familiar notion that bigger is better, that economies of scale will allow for cheaper provision of government services and reductions in bureaucracy, and that more businesses will be attracted to the region through a simplified regulatory regime and the combined population of the three Maritime provinces. These are not necessarily new ideas. Every time Maritime Union has re-emerged, comparable ideas have been part of the national conversation. However, since the 1970s and 1980s, we have been living in a period when “neoliberalism” is increasingly the dominant mode of Western political and economic thought. Neoliberal adherents advocate deregulation, privatization of government services, free trade and “open” markets, and the like. The latest discussion about Maritime Union has been primarily conducted within a neoliberal framework (see the Conservative senators and media commentators mentioned above) that often excludes the values and priorities of most of the people who call the Maritimes home.

The sand dunes at New Brunswick’s Kouchibouguac National Park. The park was established as part of the regional economic development programs in the 1960s and 1970s. While Kouchibouguac is now a popular recreational space, many families, some of whom relied on local natural resources, were expropriated from the area to make way for the park.

There are many similarities between the current neoliberal logic of Maritime Union and the management of natural resources in the region. In the 1960s and 1970s, the federal and provincial governments initiated a series of regional economic development programs with the goal of “modernizing” the Maritime economies. As part of this larger process, government planners relied on the social science theories of “growth centres” and “growth poles.” Such theories claim that if industry and infrastructure are consolidated in centralized (usually urban) locations, then the ensuing economic development will radiate out into other (usually rural) areas and generate further growth. While the current neoliberal logic of Maritime Union may at first appear to be quite different, both types of reasoning are effectively about centralization and consolidation. The actual outcome of the regional economic development programs of the 1960s and 1970s was the centralization of management of natural resources away from local peoples and into the hands of a few large companies (in the case of my research, pulp and paper companies) and government bureaucrats in distant capital cities. The outcome of Maritime Union would likely be very similar. This time around, however, those companies attracted to the region, if neoliberal advocates have their way, would have to deal with even fewer political restraints, regulatory safeguards, and real people.

Maritime Union is not in the best interests of Maritimers. The idea that greater centralization and consolidation of political and economic control will benefit the Maritimes is false. Neoliberal proponents frequently use ambiguous and intimidating language such as “market forces,” “international competition,” and “emerging markets” to make their proposals sound like they are the only reasonable way forward. The best approach to neutralize such rhetoric is to refer back to the real, lived experiences of local peoples. Past experiments in centralization and consolidation have left Maritimers with little say as to how local natural resources should be managed and whom should benefit most from how they are managed. This is a legacy that Maritimers are still living with, as rural areas are experiencing high levels of unemployment and the familiar exodus of young people “Goin’ Down the Road” to look for work.[iv] Maritime Union would simply be more of the same. Instead, the governments and regulatory regimes that are still in place must do more to meet the real needs and concerns of rural communities when addressing issues of natural resource management, perhaps through decision-making processes that actually involve local peoples.

[i] CBC News, “Revived Maritime merger proposal gets no political support,” December 2, 2012. Also, thank you to Jason Hall for his helpful editorial suggestions.

[ii] John Ibbitson, “Pride, vested interests doom Maritime union campaign,” The Globe and Mail, December 3, 2012, and National Post editorial board, “Hail Nova Brunsward.” National Post, November 29, 2012.

[iii] Tim Harper, “Senators revive Maritime union proposal.” The Toronto Star, November 30, 2012.

[iv] Goin’ Down the Road, directed by Donald Shebib (Chevron Pictures, 1970). Goin’ Down the Road is an iconic 1970 Canadian film about two men from Cape Breton who move to Toronto to find work.

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