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Think-tank calls Atlantic Canada's economic performance soft so far in 2014

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HALIFAX - A slowdown in employment, retail sales and general exports has contributed to a weak overall economic performance in Atlantic Canada during the first half of 2014, says a new report released by a Halifax-based think-tank.

But despite a lacklustre start to the year, the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council said Wednesday that an abundance of major capital projects should help turn around the region's economy.

Included in that list of projects are plans to build the next generation of warships in Halifax, construction on the city's new convention centre, energy pipelines and possible shale gas exploration in New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador's work on Muskrat Falls and the Maritime Link.

"Should these projects continue to move forward, and/or lead to further capital investments, that obviously bodes well for the Atlantic region," said senior policy analyst Fred Bergman. "But so far this year things have been soft."

New Brunswick was the only one of Atlantic Canada's four provinces to experience a jump in employment, but the province still failed to reach 2008 levels. At the same time, the council says national employment grew by 0.7 per cent.

The council's report said the region's poor economic performance is partly the result of changes to federal labour initiatives.

It says changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program are expected to disproportionately affect the East Coast, with temporary foreign worker numbers forecast to drop 64 per cent in Atlantic Canada by 2016, compared to 52 per cent nationally.

As well, the federal government will no longer process program applications for 10 low-skill occupations in the accommodation, food service and retail sectors, from regions where the unemployment rate is more than six per cent. This change will affect all four of the region's provinces, said the report.

"It's not because it's targeting Atlantic Canada in particular," said Bergman. "One possible reason is because the tourism sector is fairly important to most parts of Atlantic Canada, and the tourism sector tends to benefit those particular sectors."

Still, Bergman said a rebounding resource sector and the renewal of labour market agreements in the Atlantic region is a cause for optimism for an economic turnaround.

Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador signed agreements with Ottawa and will receive funding over the next three years for job creation.

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