Who is Margaret Conrad?

Have you ever read a book or an article or watched a movie and as the words unfolded on the page or the screen you could just sense that this was going to be a phenomenal work of art? Even before you finished the first paragraph?

I picked up a free copy of the October Literary Review of Canada at the Ideas Festival and just started reading it this morning. There is an essay in there from Margaret Conrad entitled “History Does Matter” and it is the perfect set piece for people that want a deeper understanding of the fundamental economic challenges facing Atlantic Canada.

She starts us off with juicy tidbits like this one:

“My favourite is a statement by Barry Cooper, a political scientist based at the University of Calgary, who argued, in 2002 as a matter of fact that “stagnation and decadence remain the most prominent features of pre-modern communal life to have survived into the present” in the Maritimes”.

So we were lazy and decadent 200 years ago. Don’t forget that the University of Calgary ideas are mentioned a lot more these days in Ottawa.

“Missing from the narrative is any genuine national policy, such as the TransCanada pipeline, the St. Lawrence Seaway or the Auto Pact, to put Atlantic Canada squarely in the black. Instead, the region gets what Donald Savoie calls ‘guilt money’ – equalization…..”

Nectar from the vine. Salience in its finest essence. Of course, I am biased based I say the same thing on this blog – but you never read this stuff in something like the Literary Review of Canada.

No one ever – ever – in the national discourse – certainly not at the U of Calgary will ever even talk about the fact that the federal government spent what today would be billions on the St. Lawarence Seaway which cut off Atlantic Canada as the major trade route into central Canada. The Port of Montreal is a Top Five port in North America and Atlantic Canada’s ports wither on the vine. I wonder if U of Calgary ‘thinkers’ would have a different view if the Federal government annexed Alberta north of Edmonton and diverted all that oil revenue somewhere else. That is not too far removed from what the St. Lawrence Seaway did to the long term effect on Atl. Canada. Would Halifax be Boston? Would Moncton be Hartford? Who knows?

The Auto Pact too was a juicy little federal deal. Add in the billions since in federal incentives and you have by far the largest export industry in all of Ontario. Name me one industry in New Brunswick in the top 10 exports that was directly influenced like that by federal policy. There are none – don’t bother looking.

The TransCanada pipeline? Ditto. Good moniker for it, though. I guess we should be lucky the feds didn’t cut off the telecom network or the TransCanada highway network west of the St. Lawrence.

The complianing Maritimers. Why don’t they take their gravy and shut up?

Anyway back to Conrad. The hits keep coming. You should read this lady.

“Had we rejected Confederation – or if we did so now – would we be in the enviable position of Iceland, with its high standard of living?”

Nice.

“With the exception of the 1930s, out-migration has been endemic to the region since Confederation, a condition, that, had it occurred anywhere else in Canada, would have been a signal for emergency measures to staunch the flow of human capital. If anything gets my dander up, it is the view, implied in many national debates and policies, that sustaining healthy, vibrant communities in Atlantic Canada is less important than it is in Quebec, Ontario or Alberta.”

Sweet nectar from the vine. Exactly. Ontario is right now getting just a taste – a slight morsel – of what this region has gone through for 100 years and it is reeling. Demanding billions in aid, equalization and sympathy. Fascinating stuff.

Margeret Conrad is Canada Research Chair in Atlantic Canada studies at the University of New Brunswick. I have to admit that she does take it in a direction I don’t go. She blames the EI reforms in the 1990s for hollowing out the region’s smaller communities.

If she would have just ended the piece by stating the real reason why this region has chronically underpeformed – a long term underinvestment by the private sector – then I would become an enternal devotee. She had me at “University of Calgary” but she could have locked me up for life if she had gone that extra step.

You see we need to have national policies that bring Atl. Canada in. R&D policies, industry policies, those large scale funding programs that all but shut out places like New Brunswick. Natural gas pipelines? Yes.

Certainly we can’t put the genie back in the bottle on the St. Lawrence seaway and I wouldn’t recommend it if we could but I do find it ironic that as the Feds announced they would be putting a few bucks into something called the Atl. Gateway they announced a bigger pot for something called the Continental Gateway. On a related note, the Port of Montreal said it needs another billion to double its size. Wonder where much of that dough will come from?

We need more Conrad. More Savoie. Then we need solutions