The Sage makes a rocky curtain call

Donald Savoie has mounted the barricades again. Called by some the Sage of Bouctouche for his long career of writing, teaching and advising governments, the septuagenarian University of Moncton political scientist has a new book out on Maritime economic development and its complaints.

The 400-page tome Looking for Bootstraps: Economic Development in the Maritimes comes along a decade after Savoie swore off the topic following publication of “Visiting Grandchildren: Economic Development in the Maritimes,” also weighing in at around 400 pages.

Grandchildren was a scholarly work published by the University of Toronto Press. A cover blurb called it Savoie’s “magnum opus” on the subject, and indeed it was. The book was a comprehensive review of economic development and the politics around it dating back to Confederation. It detailed how national economic policies have favoured the central provinces at the expense of the Maritimes and challenged many of the myths about the regional economy propounded by the national media, central Canadian politicians and neoliberal think tanks.

Writing a sequel to a magnum opus is no easy task, but Savoie has given it a go with the more populist Nimbus-published Bootstraps, looking back with some anger at most of the topics covered in his previous writing. And he is promoting the book through a four-part series appearing in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald and the Irving newspapers in New Brunswick.

In the intro to the book, and in media interviews Savoie, a much-honoured academic (two awards worth $150,000 in the past two years alone), does not pinpoint exactly why he’s back at it, other than that he has “become increasingly concerned about the future of my region and its ties to Canada’s national political institutions, how our provincial governments are planning for economic development and how the Maritimes view our economic future.” He says he wants to have a debate about those concerns.

New concerns

The reader may get a better idea of where he is coming from through the recent developments he chose to highlight in the new book, tellingly dedicated to the late K.C. Irving “a visionary, a builder and a deeply committed Maritimer”- and a native, like Savoie, of Bouctouche, Kent County, New Brunswick.

One new concern is the Ontario-dominated Trudeau government. Savoie has never pulled punches when it comes to criticizing the tendency of some Ontario politicians to confuse and conflate their province’s interests with those of the country. As Savoie points out, it’s getting worse. In Bootstraps he laments the continuing loss of Maritime political clout in Ottawa, evidenced by the minor cabinet portfolios now held by Maritimers. And he bemoans the fact Trudeau’s transition team consisted of “four Ontario-based individuals” and “all key actors in the Prime Minister’s Office are also Ontario-based individuals with ties to the Ontario government.”

In recent years that Ontario Liberal government has maintained an aggressive Ontario-first stance on issues like transfer payments to the have-less provinces. Sobering as the revelation is, it is good that Savoie is shedding light on the fact that this corrosive agenda has found a home in the PMO.

Not so welcome is another area of emphasis – an embrace of the notion that federal transfer payments to the Maritimes should somehow be contingent on us engaging in environmentally-risky resource development. Even before this book, Savoie was a critic of the Nova Scotia and New Brunswick moratoria on fracking for shale gas, questioning how on “both economic and moral grounds” those provinces can say no to fracking but “accept transfer payments from other regions that are generated largely by shale gas and oil development.” He also trots out opposition to uranium mining as a further illustration of our supposed unwillingness to shake off the status quo in favour of pursuing greater prosperity.

Besides urging Maritimers to embrace uranium and shale gas, Savoie floats a number of other reform proposals – a two-tier wage scale for public servants, tougher EI requirements, more skills development and better cooperation between provincial governments and institutions such as universities. He calls forth the old reliables, admittedly inspired by the Ivany report, “courage, imagination and a determination to do better.” And he makes the rather startling claim that without embracing such solutions the population of the Maritimes may shrink by three-quarters to about 500,000. (Think what that will do to property values).

Transfers downplayed

Like the Ivany report, Bootstraps is broad enough that it can be used to support both sides of the argument about inter-regional fairness. Those who believe that Maritimers are getting a raw deal from Confederation will find lots in the book to support their case. But the likes of the Alberta Wildrose and Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall will no doubt be delighted to cite Donald Savoie, the Sage of Boutouche, in making their arguments for curtailing equalization and other transfers.

And it is on the transfer issue that this book is most disappointing. While laying out in some detail the recent changes in transfer payments that have the potential to damage citizens of this region, Savoie appears to accept those changes as a done deal. In doing so, he does not even consider the equality of citizenship implied in Section 36 (2) of the1982 Constitution Act, landmark legislation brought into being through the leadership of the father of our current Prime Minister.

He ignores the central argument of my 2014 book Equal as Citizens that the federal government has an obligation to ensure that equalization payments are sufficient to provide all Canadians with a reasonable standard of public services at comparable rates of taxation. He he also gives short shrift to the case laid out by his younger colleague, Richard Saillant, in his 2016 book A Tale of Two Countries.

Saillant, who is, ironically enough, director of the Donald J. Savoie Institute at the University of Moncton, has argued that due to our aging population and shrinking work force no amount of tweaking of the economy will save the five eastern provinces from being unable to afford “health care as we know it” without tax hikes that would “push residents to leave in droves.” It’s not clear whether Saillant’s “droves” would lead to the kind of drastic de-population imagined by Savoie. But unlike Savoie (and Ivany), Saillant emphasizes the responsibility of the federal government to prevent the emergence of two classes of citizenship – and mass out-migration – by transferring more money to older, faster-aging provinces.

Saillant does argue that we need to earn those additional transfers by changing our ways – increase provincial taxes, be more efficient in public service delivery and be more fracking-friendly. Some will not agree with this part of Saillant’s thesis, but at least he moved the debate forward, beyond the anger over past transgressions and the longing for a different economic reality that marks Savoie’s latest foray.

The contrasting views of the two professors would make for lively debate in the faculty lounge at the University of Moncton, but what’s really needed is getting the discussion into the public political arena. That’s a difficult task when the Maritime caucus and the three Maritime governments are solidly Liberal and the Prime Minister is all about spectacle and photo opportunities. But we could start with a family-friendly question for Justin Trudeau. How does he square the most recent health transfer deal with the equal citizenship of section 36 (2) of his father’s proudest achievement, the Constitution Act?

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PSAs I was writing this post, word arrived that the federal government is putting $65.6 million into twinning highway 103 from Tantallon to Hubbards. Does this good news for automobile travellers mean that a page has been turned, that the Trudeau government is rewarding Nova Scotians for their support at the last election? In a word, no. This funding comes compliments of the Building Canada Fund, initiated by the Harper government in 2007, extended by the Conservatives in 2014 and continued under the Liberals. Since its inception, Nova Scotia has qualified for up to $50 million a year under the program. The Highway 103 project will use up about $17 million a year which means there will be lots left over for other projects. Thanks Steve, wherever you are.

 

 

 

About Richard Starr

RICHARD STARR has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and freelance policy adviser. He is author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, appearing in everything from Atlantic Insight to Atlantic Progress. A lifelong student of Maritime history, Starr is married to playwright and former MP Wendy Lill. They live in Dartmouth.
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