Nation building

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.

6 thoughts on “Nation building

  1. Good tie in, so I’d just add that this is very much at odds with the PUBLIC view of ‘nation building’-which is pretty close to what is mentioned above. But it’s far worse than the scenario above, economic development IS in fact the DRIVING force of nation building-its called business interests. Everywhere you go in Canada, or even in most developed countries the main aim of public policy is to lower business taxes. There is NO evidence that this does anything to develop economies except in theory. In Canada it has ALWAYS been ‘the economy stupid’. That’s why labour mobility is always the most prized possession of industrial societies-remember Brian Crowley stating that increased trucking should bring in more mexican workers (not as citizens of course).

    Canadians themselves have never felt that way, and its not difficult to do, it was done half assed during the second world war, but even then there were some pretty strong regional efforts-and that was even with a government policy aimed at developing certain regions.

    Every centre of power is much like that, showing the vast efforts to ‘bring everybody together’ when really it was simply ‘bringing everybody UNDER one federal umbrella. If you take out the politics canadians are very nationalistic, but with politics…

  2. regional development to encourage a national collective? How do you think we ended up with the western part of this country wanting in? (i.e. remember CF 18) Regional development has always done more to alienate parts og this country than bring it together.

  3. Well that’s hardly true. If you look at the federal projects in PEI and in NFLD, even Nova Scotia, they certainly don’t have that aim. It’s not the feds fault that when they offered up hundreds of millions of dollars that New Brunswick provincial politicians spent it on highways. They COULD have set up all kinds of the R&D or even manufacturing often mentioned here. Even if you look at it lately, it was regional pressure-namely AIMS, that got the whole ‘Atlantica’ ball rolling, so now the feds only fund projects that are about the ‘gateway’. That’s not the feds doing though, its simply that the ONLY political pressure comes from this group. So once again, even with federal dollars it comes down to provincial priorities. As the saying goes, if there were oil in New Brunswick the feds would help fund it (they certainly did in Newfoundland). Get the right projects, and the feds will help fund it, but don’t blame the ‘idea’ of ‘regional development’. There are lots of places in the world that are far less ‘developed’ than New Brunswick, so things COULD be far worse.

  4. If you want people to feel Canadian or part of some larger collective you need to do things that facilitate that.

    You can stand and look at memorials for as long as you like,and I have,but without the interest in reading some great books,you learn nothing.
    And with reading books on History you will soon reach the conclusion,no country will ever succeed on forced language plans as their main agenda.And that is all Ottawa and environs is.
    Western Canada does not have that agenda,although imaginary sophisticated BC tries to make on they do.
    So, want to invest in Canada, Provinces without the language noose ,are the only sensible choice.All though NB is ok the way it is ,if anyone wants growth their only chance is association with the U.S.
    Meanwhile ,do what many east of Manitoba are doing,get some kind of pension as fast as you can and live frugal.

  5. Even though you guys go on ad nauseam about potholes and payment, it’s not just that. Take two examples near or on PEI (Atlantic Beef Products inc, and Cape Jourimain inc. Both created solely by government and both failing miserably. Though you don’t want to admit it, without good tax policy and infrastructure, there will be limited investment from the private sector. Which leaves us with pet goverment projects that are doomed in an ever gradually shrinking market.

  6. “without good tax policy and infrastructure”

    What the heck does that mean? Do taxes need to be even lower??? Look, I am part owner of a small business and, while we all would like to pay less tax, there is always a price to pay. My business grows when the local economy grows and I see zero evidence that this growth is significantly affected by the tax rate. Cape Jourmain is in trouble because it seems to have been built in part to attract traffic heading to PEI. Good idea, but, trouble is, that traffic needs more of an incentive to get off the highway than Cape Jourmain. If there was a suite of attractions then perhaps that traffic could be diverted. Many of these types of investments by govts fail, that’s true; but many private investments fail as well. Most small businesses fail, after all.

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