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Three paths to prosperity for Cape Breton: Senator Christmas
October 23, 2019
image Dan Christmas
Dan Christmas
ISG - (Nova Scotia)

For centuries, Nova Scotians have been working hard to build a robust economy and quality of life for its inhabitants. Our population is now over 965,000 and we’ve traditionally had a wealth of natural resources, while aiming to diversify our economy since the end of the Second World War.

In fact, in 2016, Halifax had one of the fastest growing metropolitan economies among the 28 cities covered in the Conference Board of Canada’s Metropolitan Outlook. The city ranked as one of the top 10 North American cities in which to do business. Its economic growth was being driven by $129 billion in major projects in Atlantic Canada including shipbuilding, energy and new real estate developments.

But the economic news elsewhere in Nova Scotia, and particularly in Cape Breton, bears absolutely no semblance to anything remotely relating to good news — and it’s time we talked about it.

I’ve shared the story about population decline and counter-migration of youth — those choosing to leave the island due to a dearth of opportunities.

But make no mistake, our island’s in trouble. I knew from the Ivany Commission’s report on Nova Scotia’s economic future that our overall population was projected to decline over the next 25 years.

But when you consider the numbers on Cape Breton, we realize that we’ve already been declining for quite some time, and worse than we imagined.

The bleak reality these figures paint is this: Cape Breton (Unama’ki) is slowly bleeding to death. In the face of this, earnest discussions have begun with many on our island about Cape Breton becoming Canada’s 11th province, among other alternatives.

I’ve been fortunate to have found two organizations to come alongside me in this endeavour and help guide the discussions — I’m specifically thankful for partnerships with New Dawn Enterprises and the Union of Nova Scotia Indians – the five Mi’kmaw Chiefs of Cape Breton.

These two key partners have endorsed my process, share my vision for rebuilding our prosperity and embrace my call for consideration of new means of coming up with a different, better and innovative option for governance of our island.

Since launching the dialogue nearly two years ago, I’ve been inundated with feedback in person, received considerable editorial coverage in the press and witnessed a flurry of activity on social media. There’s been much positive comment as well as some comments that I would consider to be good constructive criticism.

It seems that for some, seeking province-hood would be an inconvenience; it would be viewed as taking time and energy away from economic development pursuits. Others note that it might be politically and constitutional difficult to attain province-hood, if not downright impossible.

Others are saying that Cape Breton couldn’t exist without the mainland, that we could not survive financially without the province and that the province itself needs to step up its economic development game in Cape Breton.

In light of this, I’d like to add another log to the fire. Can we compare Cape Breton Island to another jurisdiction that is similar in size and nature to what I’m proposing?

I believe we should compare ourselves with an effective equivalent — and the model I propose is the province of Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.).

We each have about the same population: P.E.I. has 142,000 people and we have 132,000. Geographically, P.E.I. is smaller; Cape Breton Island is about twice its size. Lastly, P.E.I. has been an island province of Canada since 1873.

Our population has dropped since 2006, while P.E.I.’s population is growing. So, we’re literally going in opposite directions, from the perspective of population.

Twelve years ago,  employment numbers showed that P.E.I. had 68,000 people employed while Cape Breton had 55,100. By 2016, P.E.I.’s employment numbers grew to 71,500 while Cape Breton’s dropped significantly, to 48,000. So again, we’re going in opposite directions employment-wise. In fact, the gap is widening.

Let’s consider a few more comparisons: During the 2015-16 fiscal year, the federal Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency spent $29 million in P.E.I. and only $13 million in Cape Breton — quite a gap on spending.

P.E.I. also benefitted from provincial investments — in 2016, Innovation P.E.I. forecasted spending of $39.5 million, and Tourism P.E.I. forecasted spending of $14 million in their province. Imagine what we could generate if we had such annual government investment in Cape Breton?

Considering all of this, the fundamental question I’m compelled to ask is whether P.E.I. is prospering because it has control of its own economic and financial levers? Conversely, is Cape Breton declining because we’re not at the wheel?

To me, it feels as if we’re on an airplane — Air Cape Breton or Air Unama’ki, if you will — and we’re quickly losing altitude. But we’re not in the pilot’s seat, we’re only the passengers.

I say we need to take control of our own plane before we crash.

As I mentioned earlier, province-hood is but one alternative to consider. There are others. Perhaps we become Canada’s fourth territory.

One other worthy alternative is modelling Cape Breton’s government after the system of co-operative governance shared by our island’s five Mi’kmaw communities and its five municipalities: a treaty-based model. One need only look to the socio-economic success of Membertou and its place in Cape Breton’s economy to see the merit in emulating its governance across our island.

Examining how we are governed and considering how we might improve is very timely. Our undertakings around examining the options before us should be the stuff of political dialogue at the regional, provincial and federal levels.

But this should not be a partisan debate. This is not about winning votes. This is about the economic survival of our island and building a sustainable future for our young people.

To this end, we welcome engagement on this front — we seek ideas, wisdom, creativity, passion and vigour — whether you’re a former or current politician, an academic, a journalist, a student or a leader in public policy forums. We see this as a collaborative undertaking that aims for consensus on the best way forward, regardless of how daunting it may appear.

As we go forward, the next step on the road I propose is much like that undertaken by the colonies in pre-Confederation days: we convene a conference in the months or years to come to provide a forum for fulsome discussion around the options for our island’s future.

Let’s consider the pros and cons of province-hood or about becoming a fourth territory or mirroring a Mi’kmaw treaty governance model. Let’s talk about our history. Let’s analyze our economy. Let’s investigate our population and its demography. Let’s be passionate, but let’s also be fair and objective in our deliberations.

Let’s acknowledge and respect all points of view. Let’s do the hard work.

And then let’s decide where we will go, together, from there.

Senator Dan Christmas represents Nova Scotia in the Senate.

A version of this article was published in the July 2, 2019, edition of the Cape Breton Post.