The rising tide: A proposed free-trade area promises to radically change Canada’s East Coast, but would it lift all boats?

The McGill Daily | 22 October 2007

The rising tide

A proposed free-trade area promises to radically change Canada’s East Coast - but would it lift all boats?

By Drew Nelles

A makeshift smoke bomb flies through the air, hurled anonymously from a crowd of black-clad protesters. It bursts at the feet of a line of nervous police offers. As smoke billows, the ’Black Bloc’, about 75 strong, shifts uneasily before suddenly running in the opposite direction, away from the building guarded by police. Nearby, a much larger crowd of protesters looks on as the Black Bloc scrambles. There are a few desperate cries: "Where are we going?"

Just a few minutes later and a short distance away, the demonstrators clash with police. It’s a queasy, violent scene: paint and light bulbs are met with pepper spray, tazers, billy clubs, and multiple arrests. As protesters disperse and run, the battle moves north for a showdown. Things end quickly after another tussle, and the ground is littered with glass and grim detainees. Police tazer at least one protester who is already in handcuffs.

A man who looks young enough to be a teenager lies on the ground, tazered into unconsciousness. Police huddle around him, chuckling and cracking jokes. When paramedics arrive, one turns to a cop and asks, apparently incredulous, "What were you thinking?" The man on the ground regains consciousness. "Tell them to go away," he croaks, referring to the officers.

Later, about 100 people gather outside the building where the clashes began. Inside are businesspeople and politicians; outside, protesters scream and chant. One demonstrator, dressed ludicrously in purple goggles, a Hawaiian lei, and a garish skirt, is shoved down the concrete steps by a police officer. The demonstrator begins running but is tackled by an undercover cop, dragged behind police lines, and arrested. "You didn’t even give me a chance to remove myself from the premises!" he yells. As other protesters approach, an officer swings his billy club. "Who wants to cross the line?" he growls.

This was not the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) meeting at Montebello, Quebec, or the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, the sites of this summer’s most high-profile global-justice protests. It was June 15 in Halifax, and the issue that so enraged protesters was a free-trade zone you’ve never heard of.

Welcome to Atlantica

"Atlantica" seems a rather fabulous name for something as unsexy as a trade initiative, but the tale of how it came to the activist community’s attention is nearly as mythic. As the rumour goes, in late 2005, a single East Coast activist discovered a proposal online that described Atlantica, and began alerting friends and allies. Though the pressure of organizing against the initiative would eventually cause the activist to suffer a nervous breakdown, from these humble beginnings blossomed a vibrant anti-Atlantica movement.

This movement descended on Halifax in June for a few days of anti-Atlantica actions - part of, as one activist told the crowd on June 15, a "summer of resistance" that included the Montebello protests and the aboriginal National Day of Action. The events coincided with a conference on Atlantica hosted by a conservative think tank called the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), one of the free trade zone’s architects, and attended by prominent businesspeople and politicians including then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Peter MacKay and Nova Scotia Premier Rodney Macdonald. A local arts centre functioned as the weekend’s hub of anti-Atlantica activity; Food Not Bombs Halifax distributed free meals; and workshops were conducted and rallies organized. The sleepy college-town capital of Nova Scotia was briefly transformed.

"[Atlantica] is an invisible agenda that nobody has really known about up to this point," said JD Price, a spokesperson for the Alliance Against Atlantica, the umbrella group that organized the actions in June. "The overarching problem is the fact that there’s no transparency, there’s no participation with civil society."

If you don’t know what Atlantica is, take comfort that neither its defenders nor its detractors seem entirely certain. "Atlantica is not a proposal for political union of the provinces and states in the region, so there is no referendum to vote down, no constitutional convention to refuse to hold," AIMS acting president Charles Cirtwill wrote in an op-ed this summer. "Atlantica is not even a call for a free trade zone... Atlantica is a region bound together by a common history, a common culture, a common economy and common challenges. No premier can, by the stroke of a pen or any other action, make that common connection disappear. Atlantica exists whether we want it to or not."

A few things, however, are clear. Atlantica is officially known as "Atlantica: the International Northeast Economic Region" (AINER). It’s the brainchild of the Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce and AIMS. It’s backed by the Harper government, the Maritime governments, and the East Coast’s most powerful corporations - including the notorious Irving family, who owns most of the newspapers in Atlantic Canada. It would encompass what is generally described as the "Atlantic Northeast": in Canada, this would include New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec south of the St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island; in the U.S., upstate New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. Atlantica revolves around traditional free-trade proposals like eliminated tariffs, but in many ways it goes beyond this: AIMS and the Chambers of Commerce are explicitly interested in the "harmonization of regulations" between all involved areas, and massive infrastructure projects to facilitate trade. Like the SPP, Atlantica is vague and oblique, described more as a process than a treaty.

"You can’t say you’re against Atlantica until we know what it is at this point, because it’s morphed and modified," said Cliff White of the Atlantic Canada branch of the Council of Canadians, an advocacy group opposed to the free-trade project. "To the extent that there’s a national effort to harmonize our regulations with the United States and to more closely integrate their economies, that’s still going on. And I think Atlantica is part of that push."

Deep integration

This is what’s called "deep integration," a wider process of dismantling trade barriers and harmonizing regulations of which Atlantica is just one part. As more people start paying attention to the concept, it’s become a greater point of contention, with government and industry on one side and citizens’ groups and social movements on the other. The Council of Canadians, for example, has zeroed in on deep integration lately, rallying citizen opposition against the SPP at the Montebello protests and participating in the anti-Atlantica events in Halifax.

The SPP is the most high profile example of deep integration, but Atlantica is also a piece of the puzzle. "On the U.S. side of the border, the [Atlantica] concept has attracted little attention outside the corporate community," reads a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) report, published in February. "But Atlantica fits comfortably within the philosophy of the Security and Prosperity Partnership, which is championed by the Bush administration and United States Trade Representative. Consequently, Atlantica should be understood as part of a broader drive towards fuller economic integration and political assimilation within the continent."

Buzz terms like "deep integration" and projects like Atlantica are only the latest instances of neoliberalism’s meteoric rise in North America. Beginning in earnest in Canada during the late 1980s with Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney - the so-called "father of free trade" - neoliberalism’s ascent was cemented by the Liberal government’s deep cuts to social spending during the 1990s. Today, its influence is obvious everywhere in the country, from the Campbell government’s rash of welfare cuts and asset sales in British Columbia to the Quebec government’s recent defreeze of tuition.

There are a number of formal free trade agreements already in the Western Hemisphere: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, as well as a number of bilateral agreements between individual countries. Because it largely focuses on regulation harmonization and infrastructure, AINER is less a "free trade" project devoted to lowering tariffs and other barriers - NAFTA has already largely taken care of that - than a lubrication of the free trade process itself.

AIMS is fond of linking Atlantica to global economic trends and similar projects throughout North America, and Atlantica’s detractors point to it as one of many neoliberal projects looming on the horizon. An ongoing West Coast initiative called Cascadia is similar in its vaguely proposed free trade zone, while Atlantica is often invoked in the same breath as the SPP. But White argued that the SPP, for all its opaqueness, is still more definite than Atlantica.

"The SPP has a huge number of working groups who are actually working on specific elements of the SPP proposal. Some of those things have actually been put in place," White said. "If you look at Atlantica, I have yet to see anything concrete. Anything that happens, they say, ’This is part of Atlantica.’ It’s evolved into facilitating some of those elements of trade and the relationship between this area and the northern states that have always been there. It’s just an enhancement of what’s always been going on."

A distressed public

As free-trade deals tend to do, Atlantica has generated enough concern to unite a broad cross-section of left-wing activists and concerned citizens. Union organizers, environmentalists, parents and children, Canadian nationalists, social democrats, students, and militant anarchists all gathered in Halifax this summer to voice their dissent.

The Maritimes’ troubled economy is the driving force behind both sides of the Atlantica debate. One of Canada’s poorer regions, Atlantic Canada’s relatively low wages and high unemployment have resulted in lower average incomes and pushed Maritime residents to search for jobs in the booming economy of the West. Atlantica’s supporters argue that the trade initiative will create jobs and promote growth, while its opponents fear depressed wages and unsustainable development.

Atlantica’s critics argue that while AIMS cloaks its advocacy of the free-trade zone in the language of job creation and economic revitalization, the think-tank’s goals are suspect. One of the main points of friction is AIMS’s description of minimum-wage legislation, unionization, and public services as "public policy distress factors." When I raised this point with Cirtwill, he denied that AIMS described the minimum wage and unionization in this way. I pointed out that it says so on AIMS’s own web site; Cirtwill sighed and said, "No, it doesn’t say that on the web site."

It does: a section of Atlantica.org called "How poor quality public policy holds Atlantica back" looks at five factors in the AINER area - the size of government relative to the economy, amount of government employment, government revenue from its own sources, minimum wage legislation, and union density. The section argues that, with the exception of New Hampshire, all five factors qualify as "policy distress factors" in the Atlantica area because they are "less competitive" than the policies in higher-growth areas of Canada and the U.S.

Cirtwill argues in favour of a market-determined minimum wage. "If there’s no one working, there’s no one to be members of the union," he said. "If you end up with everyone sitting on the sidelines with a $15 minimum wage and no jobs, the unions aren’t going to have money." It’s a familiar refrain in neoliberal economic theory, and one that has attracted the ire of Atlantica’s critics. As the CCPA report - the most comprehensive assessment of the Atlantica concept to date - argues, "This thinly-disguised attack on working people, public services, social programs, and democratic decision-making is very revealing about what underlies the Atlantica agenda."

Atlantica would also see massive infrastructure changes in eastern Canada; specifically, the establishment of the Halifax harbour as a major trade conduit between Asia and the eastern U.S. It seems counterintuitive, considering the North American West Coast’s close proximity to Asian markets and the longstanding use of the Panama Canal. But AIMS points out that trade between Asia and the U.S. keeps rising, straining the capacity of North America’s western ports. The use of so-called "Post-Panamax" vessels - ships too large to fit through the Panama Canal - has also been on the rise since 1995. The Halifax port is deep enough to accommodate Panamax and Post-Panamax ships, and is the closest major North American port for Asian ships traveling via the Suez Canal - an attractive argument for AIMS and the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce.

Tied to the revitalization of the Halifax port would be the construction of new highways to accommodate transport trucks ferrying goods from the Maritimes to the eastern U.S., and the loosening of transport regulations to allow increased use of massive "truck trains" - vehicles with more than one trailer per tractor. The bigger the truck, Atlantica proponents seem to think, the bigger the buck. But for opponents of the initiative, this would entail more long-distance trade and fossil-fuel consumption in the face of climate change’s looming threats.

"[The U.S. and Asian] economies are engaged in a trading relationship that’s socially, environmentally, and economically unsustainable," Brendan Haley of Halifax’s Ecology Action Centre told the crowd on June 15. "The vision of a few business leaders is to take the goods produced halfway around the world and ship them to another country. Nova Scotia becomes a super-highway for the Wal-Marts of the world. Our highest endeavour is to become a middleman."

Which boats lifted?

The protests this summer did not end well. By the end of the clashes on June 15, 21 people had been arrested, including at least two who were not involved in the demonstration. The following evening, a "victory celebration" house party was held in Halifax to raise money for legal costs. Keg beer and vegan burritos sold for $2 apiece, and a local punk band tore through songs with names like "Thrash Atlantica to Fucking Death." A few people joked about how the prisoners, some of whom were straight-edge, would feel about alcohol sales covering their defence fees. A more pressing question, as some present pointed out, was why the party was billed as a victory celebration when so many people were in jail.

Indeed, Atlantica is far from thrashed. Following the June 15 demonstration, paint splattered the streets, a bank window was broken, and the mainstream media decried the protest as violent. But the AIMS conference went off without a hitch - in fact, though Atlantica has largely flown beneath the radar prior to the demonstration, the Canadian government announced that week $588,000 in support of the Atlantica Council, which will promote the nascent trade area.

Just what Atlantica is may be unclear, but its progress is not. In addition to the announcement of the federal government’s support of the Atlantica Council, American businessman Jonathan Daniels - the chair of the Eastern Maine Development Corporation - was appointed as Chair and Patron Director of the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce around the same time. About a month later, the Chambers of Commerce created a Vice-President Atlantica position, hiring entrepreneur Brent Samson.

More recently, Atlantica has been on the move. Last week, the Harper government and the four Maritime provinces announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on the development of the Atlantic Gateway, a key component of Atlantica. On October 5, the federal government released a 144-page report arguing that the Atlantic Gateway would create 61,000 jobs in Atlantic Canada by 2025 and result in $3.4-billion in new GDP.

Put in these enticing terms, Atlantica seems a difficult prospect to turn down in such a troubled region. But the question that hangs so uncomfortably in the air is just who will benefit from this supposed explosion in growth, and what kinds of wages will accompany these 61,000 jobs.

"Just in Halifax, just in this region here, there are 30,000 people that are a paycheque away from being out on the streets," Price said. "You just have to do the math to understand what’s going to happen when minimum wage is brought down, when people are working two jobs, when working poor are struggling to make ends meet as it is."

An earlier version of this article appeared on siafu.ca in August.

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source: McGill Daily