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Business Without Boundaries

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June 17, 2006

Business Without Boundaries

New initiative hopes to make Atlantic Canada an 'epi-centre' of international trade

by Hillary Bain Lindsay

Hundreds demonstrated against the Atlantica Initiative in Saint John, New Brunswick. photo: Chris Erb
Sean Cooper replies without hesitation when asked if there will be negative social or environmental consequences to Atlantica: "No," he says bluntly. "There are none that I'm aware of." Executive Director of the Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce (APCC), Cooper has only good things to say about Atlantica - a region encompassing the northeastern US and Atlantic Canada that business leaders are proposing as the new 'epi-centre' of international trade.

The APCC and Saint John Board of Trade recently hosted hundreds of delegates in Saint John, New Brunswick for "Reaching Atlantica: Business Without Boundaries," a conference intended to raise the profile of the Atlantica Initiative and assist in its development.

Proponents of Atlantica believe that Atlantic Canada--largely considered a 'have-not' region--has the potential to become an economic powerhouse; with Halifax acting as an international port, Atlantica is perfectly situated to funnel goods into huge American markets. The purpose of Atlantica, says Cooper, is to allow goods, people and services to move more easily between huge economic zones. Essentially, Atlantica will "move wealth," he says. "And it will create wealth."

Create wealth for whom? asks Matt Schlobohm, co-ordinator for the Maine Fair Trade Campaign. Schlobohm spoke at "Resisting Atlantica: Reclaiming Democracy," a counter-conference that drew a crowd of 300 people--people that do believe Atlantica will have negative social and environmental consequences. Schlobohm is one of those people. He notes that, on the surface, the Atlantica Initiative appears harmless: "Who could be opposed to trade between Atlantic Canada and northern New England? - that sounds great." But in order to understand the values behind the Initiative, one must look at who is behind it, says Schlobohm.

Sponsors of 'Reaching Atlantica' included large corporations like Irving Oil, BMO Financial Group and Aliant. Speakers at the conference included representatives from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS). Registration for members of the public was $595, a fee that demonstrators noted was more than most people could afford. It is the business elite pushing for the Atlantica Initiative, argues Schlobohm, and it will be the business elite who will benefit.

Schlobohm points to AIMS, a think tank he says is "pushing aggressively for Atlantica." AIMS details the "poor public policy holding Atlantica back" on its website. Included in the list are minimum wage legislation and union density, both considered measures of "labour market flexibility." Schlobohm is alarmed that minimum wage legislation and unions, which he considers the "most effective anti-poverty program the world has seen," are being labeled "economic distress factors." He argues that Atlantica, like its predecessor NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), is not fundamentally about trade--which can have many benefits--but about increasing profits for corporations, often at the expense of workers' rights, social programs, and environmental protection.

Police block the entrance to the convention centre where business delegates met to discuss the Atlantica Initiative. photo: Chris Erb

Garry Leech, a member of the Atlantic Regional Solidarity Network, has seen this happen in his own province. Nova Scotia Power used to buy Nova Scotia coal. The company has since found cheaper coal in Colombia. Not only have jobs been lost in Atlantic Canada, notes Leech, but the cheap coal is linked to human rights abuses in Colombia. There are other ways of doing business, he insists.

"Nova Scotia power should not be investing in the refurbishment of coal powered plants--which are huge emitters of green house gases--but in wind energy," says Leech. "That would improve the environment and provide jobs in the wind energy sector. And it would de-link Canada from human rights abuses in Colombia." Leech's vision of supporting local economies is far different from the Atlantica model.

"We are about to become a doorway to the industrial might of China and India," Brian Lee Crowley, president of AIMS, told the Chronicle Herald. Crowley envisions a transportation corridor moving goods from the Halifax port to markets in the US. Large numbers of trucks will be needed, notes Crowley, and large numbers of truck drivers. "The answer isn't going into high schools and [talking] about great opportunities in the trucking industry," says Crowley. "Mexico is one of the three NAFTA partners. The answer is to set up a guest worker program."

Mexican guest workers are not granted the same rights as Canadians and are often willing to work for less. Atlantica may encourage cheap labour and goods to move easily across the border, but Leech wonders if immigrants and refugees would be given the same rights. AIMS' recommendations to Ottawa include working with the US on "integrated perimeter security, harmonization of external tariffs and mutually agreeable standards of entry for persons from third countries."

The "Reaching Atlantica" conference concluded with the announcement that an 'Atlantica council' would be created to bring key government leaders on board. Leech is disappointed that, despite protests, representatives from unions, community groups and environmental organizations have not been invited to the table. This isn't just about economics, he says, but also about social, environmental, political and military policies; it's therefore critical that voices other than those of big businesses are heard.

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