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Atlantic Canadians aren't cattle

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Following the news these days, you'd think Atlantic Canada had either sunk beneath the waves, been consumed by ravenous seals, or become a worker colony for the rest of the country.

Post-budget, I watched in awe and befuddled frustration as the CBC's talking heads hashed out their responses. My dismay stemmed from one segment of babble about the economic and political shift happening in Canada: the West on the rise and Atlantic Canada as labour supplier.

None expressed concern about the brain drain. In fact, they didn't see it as anything other than positive. Frankly, I was more than irked and angered. Here's why.

To hear some political commentators, you'd think the ambition of every East Coaster was to grow up in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, get a world-class education, move to Alberta or Saskatchewan and forget friends and family. I've been to both these provinces and been impressed in different ways. But is this a sustainable solution to economic challenges in Atlantic Canada, to blindly throw support behind out-migration?

It's insulting and lacks imagination.

It doesn't help that Stephen Harper's plan for our region appears to be to "solve the problem of Atlantic Canada." He had maddening things to say about us in opposition and he governs as if he hasn't changed his mind.

And please refrain from indulging the idea of giving the prime minister credit for the ship-building contract won by Irving Shipyards in Halifax. That victory was achieved on merit.

Instead, the Conservatives have consistently treated the region as rife with welfare bums and people to ship out West where they can work "for a change." Remember B.C. Premier Christy Clark's disturbing idea of sending the unemployed to the north of that province? People aren't cattle.

Atlantic Canada has challenges, sure; we can't walk around wearing rose-coloured glasses. But it's also a resilient place, bubbling with entrepreneurial grit. Our capital cities have never been better positioned. Unemployment rates in our urban centres are on a downward trend: St. John's, 6.6 per cent; Halifax, 6.0 per cent; Moncton, 7.5 per cent; Saint John, 6.5 per cent. Stacked against the rates of the three largest cities in Canada -- Toronto (8.3 per cent), Montreal (8.3 per cent), Vancouver (7.3 per cent) -- we're doing just fine. Moncton, N.B., for example, is the fastest-growing Canadian centre east of Saskatchewan with a population increase of 9.7 per cent between 2006-2011.

Newly formed SeaFort Capital, a venture by the Sobeys and McCain families, will improve Halifax's financial services economy dramatically and help attract others to do the same. Imagine if the Bank of Nova Scotia and the Royal Bank head offices still called the region home.

And let's talk education. You only have to see the list of universities in the Maclean's annual rankings to see we get education. We're developing top-notch institutions and we're doing it without massive influxes of oil wealth or other resource revenues.

What we need is a government vision that seeks to unleash the potential of the Atlantic region, not stifle it with rhetoric and abusive comments. Our region should be the country's first contact for an aggressive strategy of transatlantic commerce, such as increases in trade with emerging economic powerhouses like India and Brazil.

A free-trade deal with Europe, and its potential costs and benefits, still has not been explained to the people of Atlantic Canada. Instead, we get behind-the-scenes rumblings of destroying supply management in the dairy and poultry industries, which will kill high-value jobs, not create them. Where is the strategy and who is in charge? So far, radio silence.

Mutual respect, I suppose, must be fought for. I wish for the days when the likes of Frank McKenna, Bill Casey and Danny Williams stood their ground and raised their confident voices to better the economies, interests and prospects of the region. Defence Minister Peter MacKay seems more keen on helicopter rides than making the case to this government that Atlantic Canada not be written off.

The Conservatives know we exist because they want to make Sable Island a national park reserve. But I get the feeling that a few hundred horses are worth more attention than our region's 2.3 million people. It's a disturbing reality.

Laoghan Hendra is a teacher and political writer living in Amherst, Nova Scotia.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2012 A10

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