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Where is Atlantic Canada Heading?

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Issue: 47 Section: Accounts Geography: Atlantic Topics: trade agreements

June 12, 2007

Where is Atlantic Canada Heading?

An interview with Maude Barlow on Atlantica

by Chris Arsenault

Critics worry that Atlantica will turn Eastern Canada into a 'free trade zone,' where environmental and labour rights fall by the wayside. Photo: Jose Ongpin/Creative Commons

From June 14-16, corporate executives, the think-tanks they fund, and some government officials from Eastern Canada and Northeastern United States will gather in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to discuss Atlantica; “a broad social project” according the initiative’s leading intellectual architect Brian Lee Crowley.

“There are a lot of people with an interest in seeing Atlantica proceed,” said Crowley, former director of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and now a senior economics adviser to Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Others, including unions and community groups in Eastern Canada and Northeastern United States, have an interest in stopping Atlantica. The economic and political project has identified several “public policy distress factors”, including “minimum wage legislation (a measure of labour market flexibility)” and “union density.”

Maude Barlow, author of more than a dozen books on politics and economics and chairperson of the Council of Canadians, has been following Atlantica and other neo-liberal initiatives closely.

She most recently won Sweden’s Right Livelihood Award -- similar to the Nobel Prize-- for her “exemplary and long-standing worldwide work for trade justice.” Her latest book is Too Close for Comfort, Canada’s Future Within Fortress North America.

She spoke with Chris Arsenault from her home in Ottawa.

In your recent book, you talk a lot about ‘Fortress North America’ and ‘Deep Integration.’

Can you describe those concepts a little bit? How do they relate to the Atlantica initiative?

Maude Barlow: One should look at the Atlantica project within the larger move towards creating one North American security block. It started post-9/11 with the creation of a task force on recommendations from the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE), the country’s largest corporate lobby group…who saw, frankly, an opportunity with 9/11 to push their agenda of deregulation of the border and deregulation of trade. That moved very quickly through senior political levels to the Prime Minister at the time, Paul Martin. He signed the Security and Prosperity Partnership for North America in Waco, Texas, in March, 2005 with George Bush and Vicente Fox. This commitment to building a kind of European Union in North America, but without the environmental, social and human rights safeguards that were in the original European Union, dramatically increased under Harper.

There would be one trade block, harmonizing: immigration, visas at entry level -- you name it. Some of them [CCCE leaders] are talking about a customs union; certainly a common market. Some are even talking about a common dollar and existing as one trade block in the WTO (World Trade Organization). So Canada would be negotiating as one with the United States, as opposed to being concerned about what the Americans are demanding from us and trying to protect ourselves.

It would require more integrated foreign policy, security policy, military policy and so on. We call it ‘Fortress North America’ basically because it’s based on the viewpoint and ideology of big business, big security, and big defence.

When you move into what’s happening with Atlantica, it’s important to have that as a backdrop; to realize what they are talking about with Atlantica is kind of an Atlantic version of this larger ‘Fortress North America,’ based on what’s good for big business, the big defence industry, the big security industry and so on.

As with Atlantica, ordinary Canadians, people with different kinds of concerns, were entirely left out of the negotiation and the debate about the Security Partnership for North America. So here we see the same thing happening: the corporate, trade and defence industries getting together and promoting an agenda that’s good for them but not for the majority of Atlantic Canadians.

In a Moncton Times & Transcript article, one columnist scoffed at critics, stating that “the Atlantica agenda is preoccupied with the hard, mundane work of facilitating trade and cross-border business relationships.” What do you think about this assessment?

This is always what they fall back on, like we’re just too silly to understand such important issues as cross-border trade. We’re not at all opposed to trade or rules to promote trade or even trade agreements.

We are opposed to agreements like NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] that expose Canada to the whims of US bureaucracy and corporate interests.

With NAFTA and Atlantica, you’re getting into an agreement with a much larger partner and it’s going to be the interests of the larger partner that will prevail.

When the US wants to abide by NAFTA, it does; when it doesn’t, it just doesn’t. If nobody but the corporate sector is welcome in these talks, then what does that say about democracy?

What does that say about the environment? Human rights concerns? The concerns of working people? Women’s groups? Faith based groups? There are many groups who would have some things to say about how we might have closer co-operation.

Nobody is against better communication and even better transportation. But if you want to see what it’s like when that gets out of hand, go to Windsor, Ontario, and take a look at the eight-lane so-called NAFTA Highway that goes 24-7, all through the day and night It’s just this horrible strip of highway that takes the trade back and forth across that border. It’s polluting. It’s horribly noisy. There are downsides to constant growth.

Yes, prosperity is important, but so are social rights, maintaining environmental, health and safety standards and quality of life. All these elements need to be taken into account.

In your travels and meetings with social movements around the world, can you talk about some alternatives, some independent economic policies that really work?

I think you can look right here in Canada, with some flaws of course. We tried in the past to mix public and private in a really innovative way.

That’s because there were so few people living in this great big, cold, harsh, beautiful country, this huge geographic space. Our ancestors decided they needed to share with each other. I call it our Canadian founding narrative: Sharing for survival. It’s different from the American founding narrative: Survival of the fittest.

We said yes to the private sector; yes, people can make money, yes to entrepreneurship and all that stuff, but there also has to be a strong public sector. The private sector won’t deliver mail to small communities; it won’t take the railroad to the north. The private sector has to make money and it won’t provide the services and the connections to poorer communities.

In Atlantic Canada, for people who wanted to make those East-West links, ribbons of interdependence as I call them, this equalization concept is enormously important.

At the same time, the problem is that Atlantic Canada really was invaded by other parts of the country and its bounty was taken and that part of the model was not good. So the question is: how can we re-balance confederation so more of the resources of Atlantic Canada benefit the people there, while still benefiting from this great partnership called Canada?

So, I think in many respects, we can look favourably on the model we have created ourselves. The whole world, however, not just Atlantic Canada, is going to have to reconfigure our relationship with nature.

The notion behind Atlantica is unlimited growth which one American environmentalist compared to the logic of a cancer cell; it eventually turns on its host in order to survive. We are killing the Earth. The Earth cannot sustain more growth, more destruction of meadows and wetlands, cutting down more forests, damming more rivers or burning more fossil fuels.

The earth is saying, ‘I’ve reached my limit.’ We’re running out of fresh water, energy and minerals. We’re releasing too much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We’ve got to stop.

One of the major answers is something called ‘subsidiarity,’ where you can grow or produce something closer to home. You have economic policy that promotes that practice: food grown locally, not shipped in from across the world, where farmers are working for next to no wages. You stop this horrible head-to-head competition; you support locally produced goods. You cut down on trade, I don’t mean no trade, but the average North American dinner plate has travelled 1,900kms to get to you. That’s insane.

In Atlantic Canada, before life gets out of hand and everything becomes like it is in Toronto, people need to slow down and think about whether that is what they want.

There is a beautiful way of life in Atlantic Canada. I know; I come from there. This notion of supporting local communities, building something together, and being careful about our ecological footprint is what the whole world has to turn to. It would be really wrong for Atlantic Canada to give up what it has right now; that beauty, that way of life. It can still be prosperous, but not the model they are looking at with Atlantica. [Following that model],I see a zone where it will be US money and US corporations. It will be a free trade zone on the Canadian side with much lower wages -- a Canadian sweatshop.

They’ll deny this and say I am being alarmist, but there is a Third World in this country now.

We’ve created a poverty class that didn’t exist 15 years ago through these neo-liberal policies and free trade agreements. Atlantica wants to take this a whole step further.

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