Status quo not an option, Atlantic premiers say as they ask Ottawa for economic help

FREDERICTON – The status quo is not an option as Atlantic Canada faces potentially crippling economic challenges, New Brunswick premier Brian Gallant said Wednesday after a meeting of regional leaders.

Economists have warned of bleak consequences, even fiscal disaster, over the next decade if the region can’t boost labour forces through new investments and immigration.

Richard Saillant, director of the Donald J. Savoie Institute at University of Moncton, has warned for years that New Brunswick is on a collision course with bankruptcy. He went farther this week, telling CBC News that the Atlantic region as a whole could see health care expenses rise beyond sustainable levels within 10 years as residents get older and workforces shrink.

Still, the Council of Atlantic Premiers gathering with key federal ministers — all Liberals — was a hopeful sign, Gallant told the closing news conference.

“We talked about how we can work together to ensure that we’re developing a strong labour force and, at the same time, working together to address fiscal challenges that can come with an aging population.”

The premiers are asking Ottawa for more investment to help create jobs and offset escalating health costs.

They’re also optimistic that promised infrastructure funding in the next federal budget will kick-start new projects and attract younger workers.

Marie-Christine Bernard, associate director of the Conference Board of Canada’s provincial and territorial forecast service, said retaining young workers must be a top priority for Atlantic Canada.

“Otherwise, the economy will be growing at a very weak pace over the next five, 10 years,” she said in an interview.

Federal Treasury Board President Scott Brison, who attended the meeting along with Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and economic development, said young aboriginal workers will soon be a crucial labour source.

“We have 300,000 young aboriginal and First Nation Canadians entering working age in the next 10 years. If they have the skills they need to compete and succeed, that’s good for our economy. If they don’t, that’s a real challenge for us.”

Canada is aging as a whole but the Atlantic region is greying faster than the rest of the country.

The premiers who met Wednesday agree another federal financing model is needed to better serve populations that are aging faster.

Brison said more home care support is one of the best solutions.

“It’s also very important economically that Atlantic Canada be open and even aggressive in terms of immigration strategy,” he said.

Bernard said cash-strapped provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador, which now faces an almost $2 billion deficit, must also control spending.

“A lot of provinces are looking at their corporate taxes and sales tax, and trying to contain their program expenditures — especially outside of education and health care. Some governments are also looking at the size of their public workforce.”

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil shrugged off questions about a New Brunswick Liberal Association fundraiser held Tuesday night dubbed “An Evening with the Atlantic Premiers.”

The $250-a-plate event also featured federal ministers taking part in Wednesday’s meeting, including Brison and Bains.

McNeil said there was nothing wrong with piggybacking the partisan banquet on a taxpayer funded meeting.

“It was the first time I had a chance to meet some of my federal colleagues outside of meetings to get to know them,” he told the news conference. “I believe the province of Nova Scotia will be better off for the solutions we’re working on here.”

Brison noted that the event did not take place poolside at some beach resort.

“If we had been flying to Miami to do this trip in February that might have been a scandal,” he said. “The fact that we’re coming to Fredericton shows real commitment to advancing our region — in the middle of a snowstorm.”