By Ainslie Pierrynowski (AIMS on Campus Student Fellow)
On February 26th, 2000, three hundred Cape Bretoners gathered in Baddeck to put forward a proposal. Organized by Sydney businessman Scott MacLean, the group pushed to make Cape Breton Canada’s 11th province. Despite the occasional rekindling of the notion of Cape Breton autonomy, this idea has yet to gain substantial mainstream traction. Yet, the reasons behind this movement speak to a province fractured along rural and urban, community, and regional lines—which has troubling implications for Nova Scotia’s fiscal future.
In particular, Cape Breton’s economic decline constitutes a running thread throughout proposals for independence, from the initial 2000 meeting where the organizers decried the current transfer payment system as a means of “washing benefits” through the provincial government, to a 2002 Cape Breton Regional Municipality-commissioned study which contended that an autonomous Cape Breton would possess direct power over the transfer payments it receives. A 2017 lecture from Cape Breton Senator Daniel Christmas, emphasizing what he perceives as the island’s need for a self-reliant economic model. These instances all speak to a divide between largely rural communities like Cape Breton, where some people may view themselves as having been neglected or left behind by a distant provincial government, and those in urban centres who see such “parochialism” as a barrier to economic growth and development. In fact, a 2016 Engage Nova Scotia survey found that two of thirds of the respondents privilege their local identities above their identification with the province as a whole, particularly in Cape Breton (where 85% of those surveyed responded in this way), Southern Nova Scotia (73%), and the North Shore (71%).
This divide is especially problematic because, while some local economic initiatives have met with success, regionalism seemingly impedes the large-scale policy coordination needed to address far-reaching issues like Nova Scotia’s post-industrial economic transition that have substantial fiscal implications for the province as a whole. A certain degree of coordination between community leaders also seems necessary, in order to make avoid creating conflicting local-level economic policies. Hence, this difficulty constitutes an additional impetus to confront regionalism. Moreover, intraprovincial divides would compound the challenge of implementing AIMS’ past calls for economic cooperation and trade among the Atlantic provinces and Northeastern United States.
In my view, this disconnect points to the need for a new politics in Nova Scotia, one of genuine negotiation and rapprochement. That is, much of the current discourse around regional identity and the Nova Scotian economy seems to revolve, on one hand, around calls for top-down unity. Commentators invoke terms like cooperation and decry parochialism, yet seldom seem to engage with regional fears of local identity, concerns, and interests being subsumed by more prosperous, populous, and powerful urban actors. On the other side of the debate, discussion seems to be underpinned by the perception of the capital, and even other municipalities and regions, as competitors rather than partners in the fight against economic decline. Therefore, it appears as though proponents of provincial unity and those of regional autonomy conceive of the province through two fundamentally different frameworks.
As a result, I feel that political, business, and organizational leaders in centralized, urban areas that seek to advance common, provincial economic vision need to grapple with local perceptions and issues, while those in other areas must shift their understanding of other locales from adversaries to potential collaborators who face similar fiscal challenges. Drawing on the 2014 Ivany Report’s urges to “strengthen linkages” between rural and urban Nova Scotia and the communities therein, municipal reform aimed at challenging the perception that local fiscal policy tends to favour urban areas, greater collaboration between business and organizational leaders across municipal and rural/urban lines, or debates and public events designed to bring provincial and local leaders together to tackle regional concerns could help to bring about this shift in mentality.
In this 2007 AIMS article, Université de Moncton economist Donald Savoie as quoted as saying: ““If we could drop this parochialism we have in the Maritime provinces and all row in the same direction, we would be better off…we all have to accept as Maritimers that Halifax is going to be the growth centre of this region and come to terms with the fact that what’s good for Halifax is good for New Brunswick and vice versa.” In order to achieve this goal, however, Atlantic Canada—including Nova Scotia itself—has much work to do.