Special Report

Summer of Celebration

Even as it honours its past, Atlantic Canada is inviting the world to see its vibrant new spirit

John DeMont July 10 2000
Special Report

Summer of Celebration

Even as it honours its past, Atlantic Canada is inviting the world to see its vibrant new spirit

John DeMont July 10 2000
Inside the bar’s afternoon gloom, a hip, 31-year-old dot-com entrepreneur gathers evangelical steam. His tale is a familiar one in the cyber age: in just eight years, the idea he forged in a university classroom has blossomed into a software company with 40 employees and revenues expected to top $3 million this year. The client list includes San Francisco’s Golden State Warriors of the National Basketball Association and San Jose, Calif.-based Internet behemoth Cisco Systems. Between pulls on a designer beer, Emad Rizkalla, the president of ZeddComm Inc., tells how he spends one out of every four weeks on the road, drumming up new clients from Los Angeles to Toronto. He brags about his whiz-kid employees, who include Harvard and Oxford graduates. He gushes about offices in Ottawa and Irvine, Calif., and the branch plant soon to open in Silicon Valley. “Distance,” he declares, “is dead.”

Rizkalla is living proof. He could be running his company, which provides specialized software for firms involved in Internet-based education and commerce, anywhere in North America. Instead, he has stayed in his home town of St. John’s, one of the oldest cities on the continent. And downstairs in the bar sit eight more just like him: young, outward-looking, confident—as befits the vanguard of an industry that pumps $600 million into the Newfoundland economy each year. Rizkalla and his crew are so far removed from The Rock’s old fishing ways that the only time one of them likely glimpses a cod is on a plate at a trendy St. John’s bistro. “Times,” he notes with a grin, “are changing.”

So is Newfoundland—even if this summer it seems firmly rooted in the past. One thousand years ago, the Vikings made land at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northern tip of the island. The anniversary is anchoring a year-long celebration of Newfoundlands Norse heritage (page 30). But the province, perhaps more than at any other time in its history, is looking hopefully towards the future. The traditional industries— cod fishing, coal mining, shipbuilding, steel-making—are disappearing or in permanent decline. As a result, thousands of workers have lost their livelihood and whole communities their reason for existing. Yet something truly fascinating is emerging from the rubble: job-spinning new industries are attracting expatriates and newcomers to the region. And along with them has come a vibrant new spirit.

The earth is shifting beneath much of Atlantic Canada. Even as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien doled out grants last week, the region’s premiers are steadily working to unshackle their provinces from the politics of federal handouts. It seems to be working: ordinary Atlantic Canadians, according to pollsters, are less likely than in recent memory to view government as a panacea to their problems. No one laughs anymore when Brian Tobin, the cheerleader first minister of Newfoundland, talks about “a rediscovery of the notion of enterprise, entrepreneurship and self-reliance.”

But don’t just take his word for it. Virtually every economist predicts Newfoundland, which led Canada in economic growth during 1998 and 1999, will do the same this year and in 2001. And the other provinces in the region are also expected to boast impressive economic growth this year.

What better time to invite the world for a visit? There are, of course, the big attractions, such as the dazzling armada of tall ships from across the globe that will fill Halifax harbor later this month. In Charlottetown, spunky red-tressed Anne of Green Gables will once again take the stage as part of a theater festival that packs them in from as far away as Japan. But there are simpler pleasures as well: mile-long beaches, small-town lobster suppers, bays full of sailing sloops and kayaks, music-filled black revivalist churches and big-city pubs, and hamlets and out-ports that combine a generous heart with an easy sense of humor. “This is still an undiscovered gem of a place,” says singer Catherine McKinnon, who owns a restaurant and playhouse in Stanley Bridge, P.E.I, where she and her husband, actor Don Harron, perform. “There’s still a sense of civility, sharing and pride that you just don’t find anymore.”

The source of that pride is evolving. On a mid-June day, beautiful Bull Arm in Trinity Bay on Newfoundland’s east coast is quiet except for the cries of seagulls circling overhead. But by the end of the summer, 1,300 people will be working at the site, readying the Terra Nova Floating, Production, Storage and Off-loading vessel to cast off for the Hibernia offshore oilfield. Its immense metallic bulk—it’s the equivalent in length of three football fields—cost over $300 million and will make Terra Nova the second huge offshore Newfoundland oilfield in production. And more projects like it are in the works, including the White Rose and Hebron-Ben Nevis reservoirs, considered the next candidates for development. The Geological Survey of Canada, in fact, estimates that the waters off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia hold more undiscovered oil and gas resources than all of the western oil-patch.

Dexter Lockyer, who owns the Tanker Inn in Arnold’s Cove, five km east of the FPSO fabrication yard, knows nothing about geology. He does know, however, that all 23 rooms in his motel are usually full. And without the boom resulting from the $470-million fabrication yard, he would probably have followed the rest of his friends searching for opportunities elsewhere in Canada. “For the first time, I had real confidence,” Lockyer says. “I knew that I could stay here and give my children a future.”

There is a lot of talk about newfound confidence in Atlantic Canada—not all of it involving oil. On the briny wharf's along the I east coast of Newfoundland, the surge in crab and shrimp prices I has locals noting the slimmed-down fishery is worth more than ever before. And the boom in feature-film and television production—which in the first nine months of the 1999 fiscal year pumped $130 million into the Nova Scotia economy—has generated a Hollywood-calibre buzz. Movie set decorator Ian Greig, who moved to Toronto nearly 20 years ago, returned home to Halifax last August. He and his wife, Anne Beadle, a media planner for an advertising firm, wanted a house with an ocean view and a quieter, safer place to raise their two young children. Still, Greig is surprised how far the local industry has come: from a standing start a decade or so ago, Nova Scotia now has its own stable of production houses, including Salter Street Films Ltd., which makes This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Emily of New Moon. The area gets its share of Hollywood work but, even if the big American bucks dry up, nearly 90 per cent of its production is homegrown feature films. “There was lots we loved about Toronto,” says Greig. “But this is a different place than when I left.”


A big draw to heading Down East remains its laid-back lifestyle


Peter Corbyn is similarly impressed with the region’s emerging high-tech industries. After 13 years, he was fed up with the 45-minute commute each way from his home north of Toronto to his job downtown where he worked as an executive with the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association. So last December, the Aurora, Ont., native moved to Fredericton where he launched veinventory.com, an online company selling maintenance parts to car parts factories. “I could do this anywhere,” says the University of New Brunswick mechanical engineering graduate, “so why not do it in a place where I really wanted to live?” Fredericton offered lovely Loyalist-era houses, the St. John River running through town and golf-course memberships at a fraction of those in Toronto. The city offered something else: plenty of software expertise. There’s suddenly a lot in Atlantic Canada, a region that used to export most of its young computer talent. But New Brunswick’s information technology sector alone has grown from just 30 companies in 1992 to over 250. Information technology, in fact, is pumping more than $2 billion annually into the economies of the four Atlantic provinces—and that number is expected to grow exponentially in the years ahead. Last week, Ottawa announced it will spend $700 million over five years to boost the high-tech sector in Atlantic Canada. Chrétien said the cash will be used to help new companies get started, allow existing ones to expand and boost the region’s research and development capability.

Still, the big draw to heading Down East remains lifestyle: the stirring surroundings, slower pace, safer schools, distinctive culture—Afro, Irish, Scottish, Acadian, English—affordable real estate prices and laid-back attitude. It can take some adjustment. Doug Lutz was 44, with a successful Calgary law practice, when he felt the hankering for a mid-career change in 1997. Fie and his Newfoundland-born wife, Kathie Manko—also a lawyer—decided to move to Wolfville, a luminous college town in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. “Things don’t happen as quickly here as I would like,” says Lutz, who recently became a partner in a mid-sized Halifax law firm and now makes the daily hour-long commute from Wolfville. “There’s still an absence of a can-do attitude here. Although that’s changing—every day.”

New faces are helping. Throughout its history, emigration has been Atlantic Canada’s bane. During the 1990s, while Canada grew by 10 per cent, the population of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island increased by less than one per cent. But in the past two years, with the economy in an upswing and provincial governments scrambling to attract new businesses and people, the situation has been improving. Local economic development authorities in areas like Cape Breton and the Annapolis Valley have been targeting expatriate Maritimers. Most, however, are newcomers: baby boomers from bigger Canadian cities dropping out of the rat race; Europeans drawn by the clean, wide-open spaces.

Still, not all parts of Atlantic Canada are cashing in on the new wealth. Many rural areas, long dependent on old-style industries, are disappearing or becoming rustic homes for senior citizens as the young leave for bigger centers. That worries some experts, who fear a way of life is heading for extinction. Jim Hiller, a historian at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, says his home province will soon become “like the rest of Canada—a series of settlements along the Trans-Canada Highway and everyone else living in cities.”

Like the rest of Canada? It seems hard to imagine a region that includes Labrador, one of the world’s last great secluded wilderness areas. Where locals in isolated outports speak English with phrases and accents common in Shakespeare’s time. Where, within a couple of hours on the roads of Nova Scotia it is possible to glimpse the worlds highest tides at work, hear a fiddler play the same heartbreaking Gaelic air an ancestor brought from the Scottish Highlands 300 years ago or experience the intense calm of a Buddhist monastery on a wind-swept Cape Breton cliff. Atlantic Canada, after all, has withstood hurricanes of all sorts down through the ages, without surrendering its idiosyncratic identity. The good times may be coming. But that is just one new reason to live in a place where just about everything matters more than climbing any corporate ladder.