Book Review: Looking for Bootstraps: Economic Development in the Maritimes

Looking for Bootstraps: Economic Development in the Maritimes, by Donald J Savoie, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Nimbus Publishing, 2017, ISBN 978-177108-481-9

Asked what he would do to run Canada more like a business, Pierre Trudeau famously quipped he would start by selling off the Maritimes. Trudeau was referring to the longstanding  ̶  and still continuing  ̶  reality of the poor economic performance of Atlantic Canada.

Another famous son of Canada, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, also wondered why the Maritimes is such a poor performer given its strategic location in relation to the US Eastern Seaboard and Western Europe; and it is Galbraith’s question that provides the starting point for Donald J Savoie’s scholarly and comprehensive analysis Looking for Bootstraps: Economic Development in the Maritimes.

This is a question that ultimately concerns all parts of the Canadian federation, as it points to the differences and disparities that exist across Canada in both the generation, and the philanthropic use of, wealth.

A more qualified investigator of this situation would be very hard to find. A distinguished academic in the field of public policy, an advisor on economic development to the highest levels of government, the author of other related books, and an Acadian pure laine, Savoie has been duly honoured for his lifelong contributions to public affairs in the region that has always been his home.

Relying on the orthodox definition of the Maritimes as New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, Savoie sets out to discover what this region could do to take advantage of its strategic position by referring to four themes interwoven through his text: “geography, history, National Policy and Maritimers themselves.” Thereby, he seeks to respond to the rest of Canada  ̶ which wonders why the Maritimes cannot just pull itself up by its own bootstraps.

Savoie writes with the voice of confidence in his own observations backed by a broad historical perspective and by illustrations and summaries of the theories and influence of other observers ranging from Joseph Schumpeter to Richard Florida, Harold Innis, and Leon Trotsky. At times, he also writes with an insider’s passion and indignation about good ideas killed by political venality and institutional torpor.

Savoie’s collage of the many theories of regional economic development and the lack of connection between the theories and the actual results is an indictment of viability of government intervention. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in his chapter on the federal government’s Department of Regional Economic Expansion (DREE) program and its equally lamentable successors.

As a former DREE senior policy advisor, Savoie knows where all the bodies are buried. Having also been present at the birth of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), Savoie can trace firsthand the history of the agency and the political influences that continue to frustrate its mandate. Occasionally, he also cites parallels in Western Canada.

But, Savoie’s principal thesis is how Confederation mitigated against economic success in the Maritimes by allowing the shift of political power from the regional to the national government without the counterbalance of a regionally representative second chamber – the much longed-for “Triple E” Senate. He pointedly notes that Nova Scotians, who did not want Confederation, are today represented by only 11 of the 338 MPs who sit in the House of Commons. Subsequent attempts to redress the balance of power have gone nowhere as Central Canada (Ontario and Quebec) took control.

The promise of Confederation was that the Maritimes would have significant representation at Cabinet. Savoie describes in detail how political power and bureaucratic influence now reside entirely in the National Capital Region (NCR). And, even though the Maritimes has senior ministers in the present federal government, regional representation per se at the Cabinet table is but a memory.

The consequences for the Maritimes of this fundamental flaw in the Constitution, which has given all the “national” power and prestige to Central Canada, include corrosive biases and damaging stereotypes of the Maritimes in the “national” media. Similarly, Savoie also traces the residual effects of John A Macdonald’s National Policy, whose bias in trade and industrial development would eventually deliver to Ontario massive benefits from Second World War spending and the St Lawrence Seaway – to cite but two examples — at direct cost to the Maritimes. Savoie also contrasts the Seaway project with the suppression by Central Canada of the attempt by Maritime interests to create the Chignecto Canal – even though this project would also have brought benefits to Central Canada.

Savoie understands the role people play in the economic equation — human resources rather than natural resources. The valuable resource to economic development is entrepreneurial spirit and Savoie reminds us how frequently immigration brings new ideas, energies, and motivation. Unfortunately, post-Confederation immigration has consistently gone elsewhere in Canada, leaving the Maritimes to fall back on the “old stock” of its largely homogeneous population. He also provides abundant evidence of Maritimers’ fatal attachment to the status quo – a region of people in favour of progress but opposed to change.

Compounding this people problem, Savoie also documents out-migration from the Maritimes, a population aging at an accelerated rate, the shrinking workforce (and taxpayer base), and trailing education levels. These social conditions also exist in a region that Savoie says is one hundred years behind Ontario and Quebec in urbanization. Add to this low productivity, low participation by the private sector in R&D, less access to venture capital, dependency on federal transfer payments and it is not a pretty picture.

If this were not cause enough, there are the contributing factors of a geography that provides a limited percentage of arable land, the fall of the “sea and sail” economy and the coal and steel industries, the small community structure of the fishing industry, and a manufacturing sector that could never be on a competitive footing with Central Canada.

Even larger conditions, such as the decline in government participation in the economy and the reality of globalization with its intense pressure for innovation and change also affect the continuing plight of the Maritimes in the 21st century.

If there is strength in numbers, why don’t the Maritime provinces – with their shared histories and values — team up to address their collective challenges and push back hard on Central Canada? While the idea of Maritime Union is older than Canada itself, Savoie chronicles how political leaders have consistently been unwilling to champion the concept, how such vehicles as the Council of Maritime Premiers have failed to be consequential and how Ottawa has, once again, been no help.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Savoie also reminds us that, even though the Maritimes has been dealt a bad hand, it can still produce major players such as the McCains, Irvings, and Sobeys. In a properly-run competition free of political interference, a Maritime company can win a $26 billion federal shipbuilding contract.

So, Savoie answers Galbraith’s puzzlement about the inability of the Maritimes to lever its strategic location by saying the Maritimes was seduced and abandoned by the Fathers of Confederation and callously treated by their progeny for 150 years.

As an expert with deep and detailed knowledge, Savoie knows there are no simple answers and tidy endings to this sordid tale. In his summation, he returns to many of the topics previously covered. While Savoie has come to believe there is no general theory of regional economic development, it would not be hard to imagine turning his final chapter of prescriptions into a set of useful recommendations from a distinguished and thoughtful individual who cares deeply about a part of Canada whose membership in the federation has not delivered on its promise.

Savoie does not say much about social capital but it is not hard to see the implications of his analysis. Societies that generate wealth are able to address social need; societies that do not generate wealth create social need. This is not to say Maritimers do not care; they do. But their capacity to turn their caring into social betterment is reduced.

Donald Savoie knows a great deal about the economic history and make-up of the Maritimes and he provides the reader with both the broad sweep and the fine detail on every aspect of his subject. Each chapter is copiously footnoted and there is a 44-page index. This is a good and important book but there is an even better book hidden within it. Savoie’s encyclopedic knowledge and the complexity of his topic would have benefited from greater editorial discipline in order better to achieve its intended overall effect. Those who read this book will not be disappointed but, as with any fulsome banquet, they may need some time for digestion between the courses.

In the end, Looking for Bootstraps is a deeply retrospective book and this is both its strength and its weakness.


Illustrated by Paul Dotey


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