I have been thinking and reading about this for many months and I just think something happened in New Brunswick after WW2 and early into the 1950s that was very interesting. Peter Lindfield reminded me of this in his TJ column today when he talked about the transformational nature of Equal Opportunity in the 1960s.
It’s very interesting to me. In the 1950s, poverty in New Brunswick was much more acute and visible. The quality of our roads was among the worst in Canada – if not the worst. We were paying teachers in ‘rich’ counties three times what they were earning in ‘poor’ counties. One third of the population was essentially isolated and marginalized without even a French language university.
It seems to me that since the 1950s New Brunswick has made enormous strides on the social justice front, on the environment – think about the pollution in the 1950s and 60s an even the 70s, linguistic duality, public services, public infrastructure. We now have more KMs of four lane highway than any other province in Canada (per capita). Writers in the 1950s talked about the rural poverty and squalor – Wilber talks about ‘rural slums’ in his writings about that time. How far have we come.
And yet, New Brunswick all but completely missed the economic and population boom. From the 1960s onward, New Brunswick’s share of Canada’s population growth consistently declined – moving into outright decline by 2001 (although 2011 was a pleasant surprise). Think about the industries that drove the national economy – auto, aerospace, pharmaceuticals manufacturing – tens of billions were invested in these sectors over the decades – almost all in Ontario and Quebec (Nova Scotia carved off some interesting aerospace activity too). Oil and gas. More recently life sciences.
The only sector of the economy where New Brunswick was a clear winner over the past 40 years was the call centre industry.
Of course forestry and mining have continued to be important anchors of the economy – but relatively speaking they have not been major drivers of employment and GDP growth. Relative to the size of the economy, they are both smaller in relative terms than 20 and even 30 years ago.
So, how come New Brunswick could – in many ways – outpace the country for social and infrastructure development (i.e. four lane highways) and almost completely miss out on the population and economic growth?
I have looked at the data in the 1950s and even income spreads between NB and the rest of Canada have narrowed over the last 50-60 years (not absolute net worth, however).
Whether I read Hal Fredericks “What ever happened to the blueprint for Atlantic Advance” or Savoie’s “Visiting Grandchildren”, Ralph Costello’s memoirs, or any of the stuff written at the time, I can’ t seem to put my finger on it.
There are lots of ideas floating around but I can’t figure out why NB would make such progress in social progress and almost completely miss the economic boat.
Certainly transfer payments have something to do with it but again if you look at the post War period, federal spending accounted for 30-40% of total NB government spending – similar to now (although the size of government was puny relative to the overall economy).
Certainly, there was more appetite among politicians to tackle social justice. And as for infrastructure, we have talked many times about NB and its country leading per capita spending on highways.
There is one angle I am pursuing – and have been for a while. Much of Canada’s growth, of course, was fueled by foreign direct investment and immigrants. Ralph Costello talks about New Brunswick industry back in the 1950s and 1960s (and I would say now too) being suspicious of national and international firms coming here. I think there is something to this line of argument. There has to be some reason why Ontario and to a lesser extent Quebec attracted the vast majority of FDI in the post war period. I don’t buy the argument that it was federal policy alone that was biased towards central Canada. I think our business community didn’t want the multinationals here and made that clear to their politicians.
Even today, many business leaders I talk to are suspicious of national and international firms investing here. Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about attracting firms to compete for local markets. I am talking about attracting firms to augment an export-based cluster. NB firms still don’t like this because they worry the big firms will steal workers and push up labour costs (or as is a constant refrain – “take government money that should be doled out to NB firms”).
I had an amazing chat with a guy at the Moncton Club more than a decade ago who said he used to run a manufacturing plant in Moncton in the 1950s and 60s but in the 1970s his national union demanded wage parity across the country in all the firm’s plants so they closed Moncton and consolidated it in Toronto.
So, I think federal policy did have something to do with it. I think NB business apathy towards growing strategic sectors by attracting key multinational firms also has explanatory value and I think unions also must shoulder some of the blame.
In the end, New Brunswick really didn’t want to grow – at least enough to make it a serious priority.
As a result, our youth left, few immigrants came, little investment was attracted and we went from the second youngest province in Canada in the 1960s (median age) to the second oldest today.
Now, much of our social progress is in jeopardy. I am serious about this. The number of Francophones is steadily declining – as much by out-migration as by natural decline. Rural communities are starting to take on some of that rural slum feel again as they are morphing into retirement communities and no one – firms or government – is reinvesting in them. The position among urban activists is hardening against any kind of rural investment in a way I haven’t seen in 20 years.
This is why I fight to attract industry and investment. This is why I am passionate about animating our natural resources sectors which are primarily to the benefit of rural NB.
We need now to do with our economy what LJR did with equal opportunity. We need to lead the country in thinking about innovative ways to foster economic development and attract the population to work in the related jobs.
Enough for today. Real job to do. Gotta put food on the table.