CAN UNION SAVE THE MARITIMES?
Murray Hubbard raises sheep in New Brunswick. He's good at it. But, like fisherman Amedee Gallant and miner George Butts, he's found being good at it isn't enough. Something else is needed. Now he's wondering...
Murray Hubbard is 58, a slender, grey whippet of a man with the large, gnarled hands and the season-seamed face of someone who has been farming hard all his life. He lives with his wife Gwendolen in a battered old farmhouse on the tree-shrouded hills above Debec, in western New Brunswick, not far from the St. John River valley. He raises sheep and Christmas trees, loves flowers — he used to raise them, too, but the sheep kept eating them — and spends whatever time he can spare, reading. He is a thoughtful man, clever and hard-working.
He has been clever and hard-working all his life, but it hasn’t done much good. Last year, the income from his 350-acre farm came to $6,359; it cost $6,100, of which $1,000 was depreciation on equipment, to run the place. Murray Hubbard is trapped in the Maritimes economy. ►
Amedee Gallant is 54 but, with his straight black hair and sturdy, suntanned features, looks younger. He is an inshore fisherman at Cape Egmont, along the low and windswept shore of Prince Edward Island, not far front Summerside. He learned the trade front his father; he is good at it, and enjoys it, enjoys the quiet morning when he turns his 40-foot lobster boat out to meet the dawn breaking over Northumberland Strait, enjoys the evening run hack, after a hard day of hauling on the rocking sea. with a catch gleaming wetly from the bottom of his boat. Gallant lives with his wife and three of his nine children — the others have grown up and left home — in a small, spotless house just inland. They get along, hut the going gets rougher every year. Last year, Gallant earned $4,600, paid $1,200 for a helper, and was left with $3,400 to run his boat and house and take care of his family. Looking ahead, he can see only worse times coming, for the lobster catch grows leaner with each passing season. Like Hubbard, Gallant is caught in an economy that doesn’t seem to work.
George Butts is 47 and, like Gallant, looks younger than his years. His hair is a light brown, his eyes a clear blue, and he moves with the vigor of a man who has worked with his hands and back and legs all his life. Butts is a coal miner, as was his father before him. For 28 years, he worked in the same black pit, No. 20 Colliery at Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. He began as a driver on a horse-drawn pit wagon, worked up to be the operator of a Joy Miner, a huge machine that claws coal from the mine wall and loads it on to railway cars in a single operation. Butts was among the elite in No. 20, for only two men on each shift could operate a Joy Miner, and he was paid top wages — $24.86 a shift — enough to support himself, his wife and the four of his nine children still at home in the small duplex at Birch Grove, just outside Glace Bay. Then, quite recently. No. 20 Colliery closed down, in the retrenchment that has become necessary for the survival of the Cape Breton coal industry. Butts was moved to another pit, where the pay begins at $18 a shift. There are no Joy Miners in No. 26 Colliery, so he will have to learn a new job. He doesn’t know how long this pit will last, but guesses maybe five years at the most. Then he will have to find something else to do — although there is nothing else he is
trained to do — or take early retirement, live on a pinched pension and sit around, like so many Cape Breton miners, waiting for something better to happen.
Murray Hubbard, Amedee Gallant and George Butts are the three strongest arguments I know for the political union of the Maritime provinces. All are men of energy, intelligence and skill, and all are finding that energy, intelligence and skill are not tools enough to 'wring prosperity from the land where they live. None of them earns what a Montreal plumber or a Hamilton steelworker would call a decent living, yet they work in three of the basic industries of their region. I have picked them, not because they are typical, but because they are better-than-typical in their skills. Hubbard is a knowledgeable farmer, and president of the New Brunswick Sheep-Breeders’ Association; Gallant took the highest lobster catch in the co-op he belongs to in 1967, and the second-highest last year; Butts was among the handful of specialists in No. 20 Colliery.
These men face the problems faced by their fathers and grandfathers and, without some basic restructuring of the area, the same or worse problems will face their children and grandchildren (unless, like so many of the best in the Maritimes, those children and grandchildren simply
say to hell with it, and move out). Hence the plea for union now.
Maritime Union is a proposal that Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island come together as a single province, with one capital, one legislature, one civil service and one set of laws. Today the Atlantic provinces appear to Ottawa ajs three little groups of lawmakers who cannot agree, on what they want; they speak with a scattering of shrill voices to a federal government already assailed by other and more powerful calls. Until the region speaks with a single voice, it will have trouble getting its requests heard. The three provinces tentatively recognized the point in March 1968, when they commissioned a Maritime Union study to look into the pros and cons of merger. That study will report next spring. It will set forth, in heavily charted detail, what union might mean in every field from education to truck licensing.
Part of the case for union is historic — when john A. Macdonald and seven colleagues from the Province of Canada arrived in Charlottetown on September 1, 1864, and set in train the talks that led to Confederation, they came as gate-crashers to a conference that had been called to discuss Maritime Union. The tariff barriers Canada
threw up after Confederation cut off the Maritimes from their natural markets in the United States — and a century of widening disparity with the rest of Canada began. For 42 years per capita incomes in the region have been the nation’s lowest and though politicians have complained, they have done it with little hope of change. Much of the area has come to believe that it’s always been poor and always will be and that’s the end of it. The first and most important effect of a merger now would be to throw off this ancient stink of defeat and begin again.
There is a more contemporary spur to union. The region desperately needs modern business practice. At present, for example, a New Brunswick trucking company must pay double taxation if it can’t prove that its drivers bought enough gas in Nova Scotia to cover their travels in that province. Union would do away with such ludicrous imposts.
It would not, by itself, solve the problems of Hubbard, Gallant and Butts. But it would affect them. By welding three scattered economies together, it would provide better markets and a magnet for industry — more jobs for those whom farming and fishing can no longer sustain. The political muscle that could be exerted on behalf of the nearly 1.5 million people of a united Maritimes — it would be Canada’s fifth-largest province — would be far greater than the combined muscle of today’s Nova Scotia (762,000 people). New Brunswick (626,000) and PEI (110,000). It would mean better public service for Hubbard, Gallant and Butts — paid for from savings made possible by ending the pointless duplication of provincial governments. The Maritimes today groans under the weight of more officialdom than any area in Canada — 136 provincial legislators, 38 cabinet ministers, three lieutenants-governor and 24,106 provincial civil servants look to the needs of a population two thirds the size of Metropolitan Toronto. The Atlantic Provinces’ Economic Council has calculated that if the Maritimes ratio of civil servants (one for every 61.6 citizens) could be brought down to the ratio for the rest of Canada (one for 106.1) the annual saving in salaries would be $38 million. That money could help find better markets for Murray Hubbard or a better job for his son.
Murray Hubbard’s father, an Englishman, moved to Debec from Philadelphia when Hubbard was two, because the American firm he worked for wanted him to take out U.S. citizenship. He became a farmer, and his only child followed him on to the land after progressing as far as one month into grade seven at the Speerville School, just down the road.
Despite the lack of formal learning, Hubbard has given himself a first-rate education, and likes to lard his conversation with historical references and pertinent quotations. My favorite of his quotations is not, admittedly, high toned; it came from a discussion of prohibition in the U.S., and went like this:
A ll very dfy,
Crossed the Yankee border To get Canadian rye.
When the rye was open,
They began to sing,
“To hell with Calvin Coolidge,
God Save The King.”
At first, life was prosperous enough, and Hubbard can remember when 17 families, most of them large ones, lived along the Speerville road. “Now there’s only one
family that can get by without outside help, and that’s us.” On top of the problem common to all Canadian farmers — the fact that costs of production go up faster than the price of farm products — Maritimers face the special difficulties of high transportation charges and vigorous competition in the central Canadian market, while the route to their natural market, in the U.S., is beset by tariff barriers. Hubbard’s life has been spent, as much of his father’s life was spent, running hard to stand still.
When he married, his wife brought a dowry of two purebred Oxford ewes, and Hubbard went into the sheep business. Now he has a flock of 250 adults and 200 lambs, whose wool and meat provide his main income. It’s not enough, although both he and his wife work long hours. “We’re up against something we can’t lick . . . Canadian Pacific can off-load New Zealand lamb in Toronto cheaper than I can put it there, no matter how hard I work, or how cheaply I live.”
Hubbard’s son, John, 23, wants no part of this unequal struggle. With his wife and daughter, he lives at Meductic, 10 miles away, and drives a truck for a living. “If sheep ran on gas, he’d be a humdinger,” says Hubbard, “but he’s just not interested in this farm, and I can’t blame him.” Truck-driving doesn’t hold much future either, but there is nothing else.
Amedee Gallant is an Acadian, whose French-speaking people have lived along PEI’s west shore for generations. His grandfather ran the farm just across the road, but his father took to the sea and Gallant followed him when he was 16 and through grade eight.
He is a slow-speaking man, careful, neat and patient. He catches lobster in the summer, herring in the spring and fall (it was selling for six dollars for a 200-pound barrel when I was at Cape Egmont) and, whenever he can, he rakes Irish moss from the seabed. This is a kind of seaweed used in medicines and in the making of ice cream; it brings three cents a pound. In the winter, when there is no fishing, he works on his traps, takes on odd jobs as a carpenter, or lives on unemployment insurance. Last winter, he went back to school. “They started this retraining business, where the government pays you to study, so I did that. I’d rather go to school and get $64 a week than stay home and get $36 on the unemployment.”
Gallant upgraded his education from grade eight to grade 10, catching up with his daughter Jenny, 16, two years behind Florence, 17. He doesn’t know what he’ll do with his new knowledge; he could go to Charlottetown and take a welding course, but there are no welding jobs in the area, and besides, “We’re fishermen here and we like fishing and we’re going to have to starve before we quit.”
Florence knows what to do with her diploma, however; she’s getting out, to Toronto, where two brothers and two sisters have already fled. “I don’t blame them,” says Gallant, “there is nothing for them here.”,.
Those last six words could make a Maritimes hymn. The best and brightest of the young people grow up, look around, and pull out, and the trend is getting worse. Between 1951 and 1956, an average of 7,400 people fled the Atlantic provinces every year; between 1956 and ’61, the figure reached 11,800, and in the next five years, it nearly doubled, to 20,800. The exiles were those the area could least afford to lose: 81 percent of those who left in the 1961-66 period were under 29; in those five years the Atlantic provinces lost 64,000 young people between the ages of 15 and 29.
To Gallant, these remorseless figures are not numbers on a page, they are members of his family scattering across the land. His one remaining son, Louis, 13, will probably go to university; probably, if he does, he will
leave, too, for in the Maritimes higher learning is often merely a form of preflight training. The circle is a vicious one — because the economy is sluggish, the young people move out; because they move out, the economy continues to be sluggish. Maritime Union would break this circle if it means, as the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council claims it would mean, greater efficiency, greater incentive and greater opportunities at home. “Nobody who lives here wants to go,” Gallant told me, “but they have to have some reason for staying.”
When George Butts was a youngster, his father told him, “Whatever you do, don’t be like me; stay out of the mine.” The easy way to follow that advice was to leave the area, and seven of Butts’ brothers and sisters did so. He stayed, because he likes the rugged country of his birth, likes hunting and fishing and the quiet pace. After school — he got as far as grade eight — he tried farming, but that didn’t work, tried a job with the Department of Transport, but that wasn’t steady and so, at 19, he went into the mine, driving a horse for $3.64 a day. Mine work is hard, dirty, sometimes brutal; Butts has broken two bones in his hand and two in his feet in accidents (he enjoyed the convalescences, away from the grimy pit) and once, two years ago, a man was killed within a few feet of him by a runaway ore cart.
“It’s a no-good life,” Butts says. “Nobody would go into it if there was anything else.”
For many Cape Bretoners, there isn’t even mining, and any visitor to Glace Bay or Sydney can see the men who used to work in closed-down pits sitting in the beer halls, some talking, some reading newspapers, some simply staring at the wall and wondering what went wrong. Despite everything, Butts’ son Terry, who is 25, has gone Into the pit. What else is there to do?
John Stuart Mill once wrote, “When the object is to raise the permanent condition of the people, small means do not merely produce small effects, they produce no effect at all.” The heart of the dilemma facing George Butts’ family is that none but small means have ever been applied to the area where they live. What is needed is new industry to replace the mines, but industry is not drawn to the marginal economy of the Maritimes, and that economy can only be strengthened if it is efficiently run, tightly integrated and regionally planned. Provincial boundaries stand in the way of all these aims. Although no fewer than 150 agencies have been established to promote co-operation in the Atlantic region, the system breaks down when it comes to such vital matters as placing industry where it will most benefit the entire area, and helping it to operate efficiently wherever it is located. “If all our vaunted cooperation worked,” asks Arthur C. Párks, chief economist for the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, “would we be in the pickle we’re in today?”
Firms coming into the Maritimes are located by the tug of local politics and the size of the bribes each province can offer in tax concessions, land grants and low-interest loans. The results are often unhappy for both the industry and the province. When Bathurst Marine Ltd. couldn’t get the favors it wanted from New Brunswick, it decamped to PEI, where it obtained generous concessions, then failed, leaving the province heavily in debt. When Clairtone Sound Corporation decided to set up on the east coast, company officers ran simultaneous bargaining sessions with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, until New Brunswick Premier Louis Robichaud found out what was going on and broke off negotiations. Clairtone set up in Nova
Scotia with massive government support, but little success. Eventually, the province took over administration of the firm, which last year lost nine million dollars. The point is not that either of these companies should have gone to Glace Bay to give Terry Butts a job, but that industry must be located according to the laws of economic sense not provincial rivalry, or there will be few jobs for anyone.
However they arrive, firms trying to do business in the Maritimes must follow a bewildering array of rules to reach each of three small markets. There are different sales taxes, health regulations and trucking laws in each province. Maritime Co-operative Services Ltd., a large wholesaling firm, was forced to put sliding axles on two semitrailers, so their length could be adjusted to meet differing weight rules in each province. MCS must also maintain three separate inventories of such commonplace items as margarine and pesticides because of varying standards. Three sets of labor laws, incorporation procedures and tax-collection methods also add to the headache. MCS is not about to pull out — its roots are here — but how many potential industries, in the light of such expensive harassments, look over the Maritimes and pass on by?
APEC economist Arthur Parks argues that parochialism is a brake on the Maritime economy, and that only political union will give the area a chance to live up to its potential. “Union won’t solve all our problems,” he says, “but at least it’s a start.”
Will that start ever be made? I believe it will, though not easily and not soon. Five years ago, when I first looked at Maritime Union, I found that, in general. New Brunswick was for it, Nova Scotia was against it (as the most prosperous province. Nova Scotia fears it might be pulled down by the others) and PEI viewed the project with massive indifference. Since then, the increasing difficulties of the area and the continuing migrations of its people have made union more palatable, if only as a last resort. There is a gradually growing feeling that union can’t do much harm, and might do some good.
At the moment, the business community is marginally in favor and the political community marginally opposed. The businessmen are concerned with efficiency. Harrison McCain, joint general manager of McCain Foods Ltd., at Florenceville, NB, told me, “It makes economic sense, and that’s good enough for me.” The politicians are concerned about their jobs. A united legislature will mean fewer seats and more competition for them, and, although they don’t like to say so out loud, few of them are willing to try their luck in a bigger pond. (Two notable exceptions are New Brunswick Premier Louis Robichaud and Opposition Leader Richard Hatfield, both supporters of union.)
All that is needed to upset this tug of war between business and politics is one new factor, and there are two of them. The first is the impact of a new generation of voters, impatient with old ways and more than willing to try the experiment of union. The second is the Maritime Union Study itself. Most Maritimers are conservative by nature; they want to be shown. Through the publicity it is generating by its work, the study is showing them. If, when it reports next spring, the study favors union — and my guess is that it will, either directly or by inference — that endorsement should be enough to tip the scales.
There will still be many problems to face, from the choice of a capital (one wag has suggested that it be placed on a barge and towed from province to province) to a name for the new province (suggested so far:Maritopia, Atlantica, Atlanta, Acadia and Nova Brunsland), but within five years, I believe, the Maritimes will be on the way to finishing the conference John A. Macdonald interrupted in 1864. □