My working hypothesis for the past 20+ years has been that New Brunswick could be a place that achieves strong economic growth, boosts its population, has dynamic urban centres and strong rural economies. The problems, it seemed to me, were surmountable. We just needed to work on a few fundamentals – boosting population through immigration, attracting more global investment, fostering more high growth potential entrepreneurs, getting the federal government to see the region as a potential source of growth rather than a headache to be managed, etc. All we had to do would be agree on a few key principles and then drive those principles for 10, 15, 20 years. In my view the McKenna years could have been the springboard for a growth agenda. And why not? The province is vastly underpopulated relative to its potential. We could easily accommodate 1.5 million in New Brunswick without breaking a sweat. Growth in Atlantic Canada in general would be good for the country as it would show that all areas have the potential to grow and would bind us better as a nation because simmering resentments would be tamped down.
Bu the truth of the matter is that after 2+ decades of study maybe my working assumption may have been wrong all along. Maybe there is something that is fundamentally holding New Brunswick and the Atlantic region back. I have read just about everything published on the subject such as Donald Savoie’s tomes, Hal Frederick’s work on the efforts in the 1950s, etc. But we can’t escape the data. The fact is that despite all the dollars invested, all the plans, all the rhetoric, successive rounds of dewy-eyed federal and provincial politicians the numbers are just getting worse. Savoie’s Visiting Grandchildren has data going back to the 19th Century but I’ll just take you back to the 1950s. Using population growth as one overarching indicator, it has just been getting worse over the decades. In the 1970s New Brunswick’s population growth approximated that of the country as a whole. Depending on who you talk to and how cynical you are there are several explanations for why population growth collapsed here in the 1980s, 1990s, flatlined in the 2000s and is slipping into outright decline now and forecasted to continue into the 2020s and 2030s.
The title of this blog is deliberate. When I got hired on at GNB 2+ years ago I was wooed in by the idea that I could implement all my great ideas about economic development. I’d be like Moses with the tablets coming down from the mountain. It didn’t quite work out like that. Don’t get me wrong. Many of my ideas – from the need to focus on specific opportunities, to the need to have a rigorous approach to ROI on economic development spending to the need to radically boost the population through immigration are reflected in the new economic growth plan and I had a hand in the crafting of a cross-departmental approach to economic development that didn’t exist before. But it’s clear to me that the provincial government is only one actor on the stage and because of our political system – democracy – it’s direction and focus is heavily influenced by the other actors.
I’m going to continue to ply my trade helping communities, industries and governments foster the conditions for growth and prosperity. I remain convinced that a weak, aging New Brunswick with stagnant economic growth and declining population will be no good for the people here and no good for the country as a whole. I’m not sure we will go over the cliff but I can see us stumbling along for the next 20-30 years doing the same old things and getting the same old results.
A lot of folks talk about inevitability. That Atlantic Canada is doomed by history, by geography, by culture, etc. to underperform but I’ve never bought that argument. If you look at the United States many of the states that have led the country for growth have the worst so-called fundamentals. You can’t tell me that Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming are somehow fundamentally better positioned than a place like New Brunswick.
A little introspection once in a while is good. Too much introspection can lead to paralysis.
I still think the fundamentals for a growth agenda are relatively easy to articulate. We need to find New Brunswick and Atlantic Canada’s place in the global economy. We need to attract a lot more people, investment and ideas. If I was Francis McGuire I’d fundamentally transform ACOA into the agency that positions Atlantic Canada in the world rather than provides banking services to small and medium sized businesses. I’d have multiple international offices (just like Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, BC have) working on trade, investment, talent attraction, institution-to-institution relationships, business-to-business linkages, etc. I’d put talent attraction on the same level as investment attraction or small business support. The vast resources aimed at trying to squeeze a little more economic juice out of the NB lemon I would reorient towards attracting more lemons (re: oops that may not be the best analogy, sorry about that). Instead of setting up all this startup incubation/acceleration infrastructure and then hoping a few NB entrepreneurs will stumble through the doors I’d go far and wide to attract some of the best minds with the best ideas to move here. We want to be a world leader in the Smart Grid? Let’s go around the world – to Spain, to Romania and to China and find those Phd students working on the coolest ideas and let’s woo them here to Shukla’s Energia Incubator at UNB.
We all caught up worried about the young people that leave our region. We use it as the excuse to not attract immigrants. This has been our fatal conceit. Between 2010 and 2016 the Canadian labour market has swelled with a crush of new immigrant workers- more than 830,000 – of which New Brunswick eeked out growth of 3,300 which was more than offset by the decline of New Brunswick born labour market participants.
And which province led the country in economic growth? The province that had the foresight a decade ago to dramatically boost its immigrant numbers.
Anyway, I come back to the prediction I made more than a decade ago. On our current path you can expect the federal government to set up a “Royal Commission on the Future of the Maritime Provinces” somewhere around 2026. It will be headed by an Octogenarian Frank McKenna who will conclude the region needs to amalgamate and radically centralize public services in a few urban areas. It will be the strategy to best manage the region’s decline.
I think there is still time to avoid the McKenna Octogenarian Royal Commission but I’m not sure the will is really here to get it done.