I’m just back from a few days in Ottawa. We visited Parliament and the Museum of Science and Technology. Everywhere you look in that town there are memorials to national building and statecraft. Whether it is national health care, roads, rail, telecommunications, satellite networks to connect all Canadians together - on and on – a preoccupation of politicians since John A. has been grand efforts to bridge our large and sparsely populated geography (or at least that is what you see in abundance if you visit Ottawa).
It makes some sense. If you want people to feel Canadian or part of some larger collective you need to do things that facilitate that.
Funny I can’t help thinking that somehow we missed the boat if our goal is to tie people and regions together. A lack of any real national economic development strategy (that reflects the differing economies in the regions) is the one national building effort that would truly get traction. If people in northern NB or Cape Breton or the Gaspesie or Manitoba and on and on thought that being part of the Canadian nation was good for their economic development (i.e. allowing people to stay and work in their home province if they so choose) that would be the greatest nation building of all.
It seems the feds want us all to be connected with broadband, have great health care, good roads, etc but whether or not there are actual people in the vast majority of communities in Canada is not a priority.
When the 2006 Census came out, Statistics Canada reported that since 1971 all net new population growth in Canada was in four small regions – Greater Vancouver, the Edmonton-Calary corridor, the Toronto-Ottawa corridor and Greater Montreal. That doesn’t mean that cities outside these regions didn’t grow. It does mean that the entire population of the rest of Canada outside these four urban areas – over the 25 year period – collectively declined.
That means that wide swaths of this country are stagnant or declining (recently Saskatchewan has emerged as a strong economy because of its natural resources) and that can’t be good over the long term for national unity and a collective sense of Canadiana.
Two small points on this. One: to me a coherent regional economic development strategy does not imploy throwing more money at companies located in the regions nor more money on ad hoc efforts. It does mean a coordinated fed/prov approach to build the public infrastructure needed for the regions to be good at some 21st Century industries. This includes R&D, education, physical infrastructure, ED infrastructure, etc. It also includes seriously investing in the efforts required to attract business investment into these targeted industries and in some cases tax incentives and other programs to be competitive with other regions in Canada and the United States.
But the second point on this is the idea national policies designed to seriously foster regional economic development is increasingly becoming a pipe dream. Most – almost all – of the influencers of public policy in this area in both Canada and the United States believe that the government should not be in the regional development game at all and should focus on its few large urban areas for long term economic growth. for most of these experts, policies should be developed to encourage more migration from ‘under’ performing areas to the urban centres. Smaller urban and rural areas (and whole provinces with these characteristics) should become exclusively focused on providing natural resources to these four or so urban regions. New Brunswick, for example, should only be about forests, fish and maybe some mining and the cities should be tightly focused service centres for this natural resource-based activity.
In fact, I listened to a podcast from one of the leading regional development guys at Harvard on the way back from Ottawa and he went so far as to say that these kinds of rural and regional development efforts are environmentally reckless and contributing to global warming. He also said government should not have policies that encourage economic development in cold climates because that a person living in a cold area contributes far more to global warming. He would like to see all new development in a few urban regions very densely developed – like Singapore in the USA.
I, obviously, have a different view.