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Welcome to Ambiguica

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Issue: 47 Section: Business Geography: Canada, Atlantic Halifax Topics: trade agreements, social movements

July 1, 2007

Welcome to Ambiguica

Round Two of the Atlantica Debate

by Philip Neatby

The split of the ‘black bloc’ demonstrators from the main march, as well as the subsequent scattered confrontations with police, resulted in an overwhelming use of force by police. Photo: Adam MacIsaac

With the exception of the Provincial-Federal row over the Atlantic Accord, the biggest news story, in terms of sheer column space, to hit Atlantic Canada over the past month centred on Halifax street demonstrations campaigning against a proposed ‘Atlantica’ trade zone. On June 15, a demonstration of about 400, organized to coincide with an “Atlantica: Charting the Course” conference of corporate and government leaders from throughout the Northeastern region, ended with scenes of brief confrontations between black-clad demonstrators and police. Photos of the ‘black bloc’ would be splashed across the front pages of local and regional newspapers for days, almost entirely supplanting any discussion or coverage within the mainstream media of the Atlantica trade corridor itself.

In the midst of this near-blackout of media scrutiny, the announcement of $558,000 in funding by the federal government for the development of an “Atlantica Council,” whose main objective will be to lobby for and “champion” the Atlantica notion, passed almost unnoticed. Similarly, the bizarre appointment of American businessman Jonathan Daniels, head of the Eastern Maine Development Corporation, to head the Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce, also received little media focus. Daniels’ appointment, which had been expected for more than a year, signals the centrality of the Atlantica proposal within the agenda of Atlantic Canada’s business elite.

The Atlantica proposal has generated protests from labour, environmental, trade, justice, and anti-imperialist organizations in Atlantic Canada. Photo: Adam MacIsaac

The Atlantica trade zone would link Canada’s Atlantic provinces with Eastern Quebec and the New England states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Upstate New York. According to Charles Cirtwell, president of the right-wing Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), which has been a leading proponent of Atlantica, the scheme is simply “about people with common needs –- in a common neighbourhood –- coming up with common solutions.”

Lost in this neighbourly rhetoric are the concrete realities of the Atlantica proposal. The Atlantica website outlines a proposal whose main thrust is the re-orientation of the port of Halifax and the rest of the northeastern region to a transportation entry point and highway corridor for cheaply produced goods from China and India. Such goods would be trucked from Canada’s East Coast and through New England to the ‘heartland’ urban markets of Montreal, New York and Boston. In addition, the website includes a number of proposals focused upon further facilitating the export of oil and natural gas resources from Atlantic Canada exclusively to the United States, creating a combined energy grid between Atlantic Canada and New England and generally harmonizing regulations and immigration policies between the two regions. The website is also remarkably frank in its dislike for social policies and refers to minimum wages, union density, government spending and the size of the public sector as “public policy distress factors.”

Of Highways, Truck-Trains and Prosperity

The Atlantica proposal has generated protests from labour, environmental, trade justice, and anti-imperialist organizations in Atlantic Canada. Scott Sinclair, researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and author of the critical report Atlantica: Myths and Reality¸ notes that the Atlantica proposal, although guided by the free market fundamentalism of global trade initiatives like NAFTA, places remarkably little emphasis on trade between New England and Atlantic Canada.

“There’s something wrong with an economic development strategy that's based on turning the region into a conduit for goods that are produced outside the region in Asia and are intended to be consumed outside the region,” said Sinclair.

Atlantica could also carry with it devastating environmental costs due to increased greenhouse gas emissions from giant “truck-trains,” multi-cargo transfer trucks. Environmental journalist Tim Bousquet, in a recent article for the Halifax weekly The Coast, estimates that the tripling of truck traffic in the northeastern region, as a result of the Atlantica scheme, could increase Nova Scotia’s greenhouse gas emissions by “something like five million tonnes.”

In addition, the Atlantica proposal also contains remarkably little mention of the fishing or farming sectors, which have traditionally been a staple of the local economies of both Atlantic Canada and New England, or of the details about how the Atlantica proposal would impact local indigenous communities.

Such sectors appear to be expendable within the worldview of some of Atlantica's more radical proponents."The painful reality is that the world changes and traditional ways of life often do not fit with the new circumstances," wrote Cirtwell in a column in Halifax's Chronicle Herald on the opening day of the Atlantica conference.

“If urban centres are growing, then serve that market and don’t worry about the declining local one.”


As unpopular as such notions might be within regions of Atlantic Canada, where the rural population constitutes nearly half of the total population, Atlantica’s proponents have managed to line up prominent political support for the cause. The conference in June began with a keynote speech by Nova Scotia Premier Rodney Macdonald and featured a presentation by Conservative Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Mackay. The announcement of federal funding for the Atlantica council followed a $2.1 billion federal commitment to ‘gateway initiatives,’ of which Atlantica appears to be a primary target.

Critics pointed out that it seemed accepted as a matter of faith that the economic fate of the “Atlantica” region would be decided solely by business and corporate leaders. Participants of the “Atlantica: Charting the Course” Conference paid a $600 fee to attend. This alone ensured that the representation from labour, environmental, indigenous, or even farming organizations would be left off the table entirely.

When asked about the lack of representation from other parties outside of the business sector, the Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce's in-coming American President Jonathan Daniels replied that “everybody has been invited into this process.”

When asked about the prohibitive nature of a $600 entry fee to such an invitation, Daniels then shrugged. “Well, we’re not going to be able to get everybody to the table. We’re going to get the people who really truly want to be interested in the development of this.”

The Uninvited

Outside of Halifax’s World Trade and Convention Centre, the anti-Atlantic protests had a remarkably different flavour than during the inaugural Atlantica conference, held in Saint John, New Brunswick, in early June 2006. During this conference, trade union leadership in the region had mobilized significantly, bringing in representation from Acadian workers in the Mirimichi, Moncton and Bathurst regions as well as the predominantly Anglophone regions of Fredericton and Saint John. The heads of the Federations of Labour of Nova Scotia, PEI, New Brunswick and Newfoundland were also present at this mobilization and spoke out publicly against Atlantica.

By contrast, organized Labour in Halifax played little role in the mobilizations and teach-ins outside of this year’s Atlantica conference, aside from a well-attended town hall featuring Maude Barlow at Dalhousie University on June 13. Although the main demonstration was arguably as large as the Labour-sponsored march in 2006, the makeup this year was predominantly composed of smaller, grassroots organizations operating under the banner of the Alliance Against Atlantica. There was also a larger contingent of individuals who had travelled a fair distance, from places as far away as Guelph, Hamilton, Montreal, Fredericton, Maine and Indiana, in order to oppose Atlantica. Actions throughout the week included a sizeable critical mass bike ride, a full day of workshops, a Friday evening street party and a spontaneously organized disruption of the lunch of former AIMS director Brian Lee Crowley.

The split of the ‘black bloc’ demonstrators from the main march on June 15, as well as the subsequent scattered confrontations with police, resulted in an overwhelming use of force by police. Ironically, the majority of the 21 arrests occurred after demonstrators within the ‘black bloc’ march were attempting to disperse by moving towards the base of Citadel Hill. They were corralled, surrounded, and heavily tasered by police. One demonstrator was held down by three police officers and tasered until he became unconscious. It took more than five minutes for an ambulance to arrive on the scene. Michael Doyle was also pepper-sprayed by police, seemingly because he witnessed police use of tasers.

“I was yelling ‘that guy is getting tasered for no reason,’” said Doyle.

“And then the guy just sprays me.”

Police subsequently laid a combined total of 70 charges against demonstrators, including assaulting a police officer, unlawful assembly and wearing a face-mask with intent to commit an offence.

Welcome to Ambiguica

In the midst of all the arrests, demonstrations and photo-ops to emerge from the second round of Atlantica/anti-Atlantica events, the Atlantica concept itself has become extremely muddied and largely ambiguous. Even political support for this initiative appears ambiguous; Premier Macdonald has been using the words ‘Atlantica’ and ‘Atlantic Gateway’ interchangeably to describe the initiative, despite the fact that many view the ‘Gateway’ as a more limited project aimed almost solely at expanding the traffic within the Halifax harbour. As Here! New Brunswick columnist Chris Arsenault has noted , even Atlantica’s proponents have stated that regional business leaders have become confused about whether to put their support behind the concept of an ‘Atlantic Gateway’ or a broader ‘Atlantica’ concept currently advocated by AIMS.

The confusion seems to be magnified further by the fact that the Atlantica discussions have been largely informal. At present, there is no signed agreement or proposal that has been put forward for an Atlantica trade zone. All the decisions regarding the proposal appear to have taken place within board meetings of either the Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce or the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

It is the ambiguity of the Atlantica proposal that may offer the greatest threat to its success. However, given the entirely closed-door nature of the discussions that have taken place, it would be premature for Atlantica’s opponents to claim victory. The “Atlantica: Charting the Course” conference concluded with no specific recognition amongst the 200 delegates of any need to include farmers, environmentalists, labour organizations, or Atlantica critics within the discussion of the economic future of Atlantic Canada and New England.

This article was corrected on July 23, 2007; a quote was wrongly attributed to Scott Sinclair.

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