CHARLOTTETOWN -- Every now and again, the notion of Maritime union raises its thought-provoking head. The common refrain, however, has not changed much over the years: union if necessary, but not necessarily Maritime Union.
Remember the loose talk about Atlantic amalgamation after the near-death experience of the 1995 Quebec referendum. It went nowhere.
Two weeks ago, though, three Conservative senators -- John Wallace from New Brunswick, Stephen Greene of Nova Scotia and Mike Duffy from PEI -- floated the idea without a great deal of forethought. With no constitutional crisis in sight, it's hard to fathom why they would proffer such a radical change to Canada's federal structure.
The arguments in favour of Maritime consolidation include the potential financial savings and lower administrative costs, the lure of fewer politicians and political perks, and the removal of needless duplication of programs and barriers to inter-provincial trade (it is no surprise that businesses in Atlantic Canada are big supporters of consolidation). Some have even suggested that it would have a positive psychological impact on people in the region and strengthen our voice in Ottawa.
It's a nice idea to debate and kick around, but no one is prepared to do anything with it. It's also true that professional politicians are not normally in the business of offering themselves pink slips -- as would surely happen when provincial electoral boundaries are redrawn and reduced.
That, of course, is all code for no political will. There is no political incentive to move forward because politicians know it will inevitably be rejected by the vast majority of Maritimers.
Indeed, the case against union is really more organic, historical and emotional. In a word, it's personal.
It is certainly worth emphasizing that New Brunswick Acadians have long opposed union because they believe that their unique culture has a better chance of surviving within a single province. They fought long and hard to make the province officially bilingual and to establish the key principle of duality in its public service. Union, then, would only spell assimilation and a loss of culture and language for them.
In Nova Scotia's case, creating a single legislative assembly and capital in Halifax would be a deal-breaker. But it would be equally off-putting for the other two provinces (and even less attractive to Newfoundland and Labrador should it be included in the union conversation). Long-standing provincial boundaries, some argue, still have meaning and permit distinctive cultures to operate successfully within them. Citizens in Nova Scotia, for whatever reason, have a special attachment to their province.
Support for union is arguably the least in the tiny province of PEI -- home to 143,000 residents. It is frequently heard that such a union would pose a serious threat to the Island way of life, still predominantly rural. Some Islanders fear the loss of autonomy (and federal MPs in Ottawa) and their distinctive personality, the prospect of Charlottetown essentially becoming a ghost town, and the negative ramifications for the traditional staples of farming, fishing and tourism.
Finally, there are the more idiosyncratic or intangible obstacles. First, what would the new amalgamation be called: Acadia or the more awkward handle proposed by the National Post, "Nova Brunsward"? Would we also see the phasing out of separate provincial flags, flowers and licence plates?
Maritime amalgamation, then, will be challenging even under the most favourable socio-economic and constitutional circumstances. For one, there would obviously be vested interests in each province wedded to maintaining separate political, bureaucratic and institutional units. As is often said, provinces don't engage in region or union-building, they engage wholeheartedly in province-building -- in jealously protecting and strengthening their own individual fiefdoms.
Distinguished political scientist J. Murray Beck from Dalhousie University was spot on many years ago when he posited that citizens in each province -- reinforced by an unflappable sense of traditionalism and conservatism (especially in rural areas) -- prefer the security of what they know over any proposition to radically alter provincial boundaries. Simply put, people in the Maritimes have developed an enormously important attachment and loyalty to their own province, their own capitals and legislatures, and their own unique ways of doing things.
Peter McKenna is professor and chairman of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.