We Need Maritime Collaboration

We Need Maritime Collaboration
By David Coon

To hear Liberals and Tories talk about our future as New Brunswickers, one could be forgiven for thinking we, like Robinson Crusoe, have been cast away on an uncharted island, solely dependent on our individual capacity to survive in enforced isolation.

As Maritimers, we are well aware that our sister provinces of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia grapple with exactly the same demographic, social and economic challenges we do. The same goes for our cousins in Newfoundland and Labrador. Yet there is precious little collaboration in finding solutions to our common problems. The Premiers couldn’t even find the wherewithal to present a common front to Ottawa in demanding an adjustment to our health transfer payments to reflect the reality of our aging population.

The Council of Atlantic Premiers, originally created in 1972 as the Council of Maritime Premiers, was conceived as an intergovernmental body to foster greater cooperation among governments, institutions and the peoples of the region. Today its outward appearance gives it the impression of a private men’s club.

Journalists give the meetings barely a passing mention, content to dutifully reprint their press releases. A visit to their website reveals precious little.

At a time when our peoples, institutions and governments need to be networking, exchanging and collaborating on the challenges of the day, the current arrangement for regional cooperation is failing us.

Last week, I attended the annual meeting of the Cooperative Enterprise Council in Dorchester to hear a presentation from the Nova Scotia-based Centre for Rural Prosperity, a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering an approach to economic development that strengthens local communities. This impressive organization is working throughout the Maritimes, networking with other groups in civil society.

The centralization and consolidation that has already taken place in New Brunswick has left people and their communities with little ability to shape their future, whether it is how economic development takes place and who benefits from it, or how their needs for health care, education and transportation are met.

I was quite inspired by a recent presentation on collaboration among the five Nordic countries, including Iceland, a country with half the population of New Brunswick. The Nordic Council is a body that brings together elected representatives from the parliaments of those countries to establish common priorities for collaboration. I would like to see such discussions take place among the parliamentarians of our region.

Ten years ago, the four Premiers and their cabinets met together in Sackville at Mount Allison University, but this happened behind closed doors and included no representation of MLAs from the opposition parties or government back-benches. If we are to collaborate on a regional basis in ways that are transparent and accountable, then it is the Legislatures that must encounter one another, not the cabinets.

Our challenges of an aging population, access to health care, transitioning away from fossil fuels, local economic development, and poverty reduction need to be examined on a regional basis to inspire the public policies needed to support local solutions, while strengthening regional cooperation where it will be most helpful.

We must avoid creating regional institutions which would serve to further concentrate decision-making in the hands a few big companies and remote bureaucracies. This seems to be the direction the Council of Atlantic Premiers has taken in recent years. It is time for it to be democratized, so it can serve as an effective secretariat to the parliamentarians of Atlantic Canada, to truly foster greater cooperation among governments, institutions and the peoples of the region, as was originally intended.

David Coon is the Leader of the Green Party and the MLA for Fredericton South.