I had the opportunity to visit the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John today. The main exhibition was a tribute to New Brunswick ‘industry’ starting with the earliest days of English/French settlement through to the heydays of New Brunswick industry up to at least the Bricklin (which is on display).
As I went through I thought this would be an economic development historian’s treasure trove. All those industries – virtually all gone. There were numerous items that were manufactured in Woodstock (iron works, etc.), Sussex, all over the province. There were 13 different shipyards scattered around from North to South. Just about every kind of processed food from cookies (Marvins) to beverages (Sussex) to Barbours to Ganongs – on and on.
Certainly we all have a Idiot’s Guide to Economic Development understanding of what went on. At some point in the early 20th century, scale started to matter, transportation infrastructure was built out and manufacturing started to consolidate in regional and then even national clusters. The global economy was in its infancy. If you read Savoie you get a deeper dive into the role of government in this. There are other souces that dive deeply into other areas.
But the bottom line is that New Brunswick in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was certainly not the stereotyped hewers of wood and drawers of fish economy. There were literally hundreds of manufacturers producing just about everything. Then that all went away and we were left with a few big survivors (McCain, Irving) and indeed a fish, wood and a little bit of minerals economy. The rest was a consumption economy.
A few years ago I tried to find a single export-intensive industry that was not fish or wood where New Brunswick was at least competitive in terms of employment and economic activity (in Canada) and I could hardly find a single one. I guess you could argue call centres. Virtually all of Canada’s manufacturing and non-local service industries developed anywhere but here (think finance, film, telecommunications, auto, aero, pharma, food – with the notable exception of McCain, translation, software, environmental industries, media on and on).
Anyway back to the museum. I get out and am waiting for my wife and kids to shop and I check my Canadaeast alerts and come across Al Hogan’s annual rah rah New Brunswick Day editorial. This is at least the third straight year of basic cutting and pasting this message. It talks on and on about how proud we should be and how much we have accomplished and concludes “New Brunswick has the people, their talents and wisdom, to meet any challenge.”
Here’s a tidbit:
And looking back over our entire 225 years as a province, we see innovation, hard word, perseverance in the face of adversity, and, most of all, a long list of extremely capable and intelligent New Brunswickers who made their mark on the world, the country and their province.
I may be jaded but I look back over at least the last 50 years or so and see wasted potential. Someone told me this week that there are more first and second generation Acadians living outside New Brunswick than inside. If you look at the migration data you will see the same story for all of New Brunswick. If we had just kept the people born here in the past 75 years we would be double the population. If we had attracted a representative share of the immigrants to Canada we would have a population of over 2.5 million people.
Obviously it is not just about ‘people’ but vibrant and successful communities need people so in my mind that is a very good proxy.
I believe with the right public policy (provincial and national), Northern New Brunswick could have become a dynamic industrial zone serving markets across North America with high value products. New Brunswick’s southern cities could have been a successful commercial triangle with many high value industries taking root.
But above all, young New Brunswickers would have choice. There would be enough good employment options here to keep them if they so choose to stay. There would be career paths here. PHD level jobs for those so inclined (I won’t show you the current Phds per 10,000 population stats – I don’t want to ruin your day).
You need crtical mass in to acheive this. Mass in urban population. Mass in research capacity and mass in industrial clustering.
Successive governments never really believed this was passible and defaulted to the same consistent approach of sprinkling taxpayer money from the top of the Centennial Building with the hopes that some would stick.
And successive newspaper editors chimed in talking about how we have unlimited potential and the future looks so very bright.
Maybe. But for the first time in our history, the provincial population actually dropped from 1996-2006. In the 50s, 60s and 70s at least we had growth – below the national level – but still growth.
There is serious risk that the New Brunswick of 2075 will be a hollowed out, limited part of a new province called Maritime Canada. It will be a place with some fishing and hewing of wood and little else.
Those that think New Brunswick will become a retirement haven can think again. That may happen somewhat in the short term, but in the longer term, health care costs will ensure that New Brunswick will never become a large retirement home. Seniors will gravitate to the areas where they have access to health care and services and in the longer term, without a serious fiscal shift, New Brunswick will not be that place.
I think David Coon’s vision of New Brunswick as a large, unspoiled national park is a more realistic vision if we don’t get on a strong economic development path.