The Atlantic Provinces “special snowflake” syndrome.

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The term “special snowflake” is generally used as a term of derision in the service industry. It comes from the term parents may use for their singularly wonderful child being “special”, like a “snowflake”.

After being popularized in the 1999 movie Fight Club, the term has transmuted into a sneering reference to those who feel they are or-so-very unique, but generally fall into columns of all-too-common attributes.

Kind of like our provincial governments.

In many ways, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador are indeed unique. The geography is somewhat different, the weather is more severe in some areas and in some locales, we speak in unique and charming dialects.

Beyond that, all of us, all 2.4 million Atlantic Canadians, are dealing with pretty much the same thing. Our economies are primarily resource based, we are in debt up to our ears (personally and publicly) and for a population slightly smaller than downtown Toronto, we are grossly over-governed with far too many people living on the public dime.

22.6% of all jobs in Atlantic Canada are in the civilian public sector. That’s fully five points above the national average.

To add to this problem, the public service continues to grow while public sector unions complain about “austerity” when governments simply try to reduce the speed of spending growth. There has been only one year in this century that Nova Scotia has seen a drop in the percentage growth of program spending, while most years spending has far exceeded the benchmark of population growth and inflation.

Do you feel we are getting 3 billion dollars worth of better government than we did in 2007? I didn’t think so.

To govern us across this region we elect almost 200 federal and provincial politicians and if we are counting just the major census areas (not including small villages, towns, county and other governments) we elect a total of 137 municipal councilors. To manage just the municipal and provincial affairs of the region we are forking over in excess of 33 billion dollars to politicians and the public service.

If we were getting absolutely awesome service from our over-investment in politicians and the public service, perhaps we wouldn’t have reason to complain. If we were getting “World Class” public services, we could all look at our tax bills and rejoice at the universal higher standards of living here in Atlantic Canada.

Except we don’t because the vast majority of our citizens know our total tax burden is much too high and “government customer service” is the punchline to a joke.

For mostly parochial or political reasons, governments in Atlantic Canada have historically felt our uniqueness trumped all. Because our respective provinces were somehow unlike any other province in the region, it was necessary to have separate provincial regulations, laws, and labour standards reflecting our “specialness”.

Not so much. There is no longer any rational economic justification for the layers of unnecessary governance Atlantic Canadians must contend with. A recent APEC report clearly explains the problem and quantifies the burden, and it isn’t pretty.

However, a glimmer of hope has arisen in our region. Perhaps because of the tireless lobbying of group like CFIB, or maybe the stars lined up to provide four political parties of the same stripe in power at one given time, or perhaps just because of the urgent need to finally try to address the problem, we have a body to attack some of our ridiculous regional redundancies.

With Newfoundland and Labrador signing on in December to complete the quartet at the Joint Office of Regulatory Affairs, the region now has a central tool to start dismantling some of the unnecessary costs and confusion that comes with four sets of rules to do business.

While such an event may have only titillated the wonkiest of public policy aficionados, it could prove to be a pivotal moment in the political and economic evolution of our region.

If the four governments finally come to grip with reality and accept the tax load on our shrinking population to support our unnecessary layers of government is unsustainable and must be lowered,  if they can come together to find governance efficiencies between provinces and enact sensible regulatory and interprovincial trade policy, perhaps Atlantic Canada has a fighting a chance at being a special snowflake.

Nova Scotia Can Take Charge of its Immigration

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Nova Scotia needs more immigrants. After years of willful blindness to the looming demographic catastrophe, it would seem the provincial government has finally decided to recognize it as a serious problem.

Premier Stephen McNeil engaged Wadih Fares and Colin Dodds to look for creative enhancements.

The provincial Immigration department has adopted “action oriented” goals to maximize all pathways to Nova Scotia, which is to say, they are doing something about the problem.

Officials are lining up immigration with our economic goals and are retooling the skilled worker stream for international graduates.

It also appears the province has recognized the need for a more integrated approach to welcoming immigrants and is taking action using the government resources, Immigration Settlement and Integration Services (the organization soon to change its name from ISIS) and the YMCA.

These are all positive moves but one of the most important pieces of this puzzle depends on business.

On November 12, the folks from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) will be in Halifax providing information to employers on the Express Entry program being launched in January for skilled workers. It may actually give Nova Scotia a fighting chance to improve its record on attracting and retaining immigrants.

As the Ivany report rightly concluded, improving the economic outlook for Nova Scotia does not lie only with government. With Express Entry, part of the solution to our province’s lackluster immigration performance is being shifted squarely on the private sector.

Express Entry is a retooled immigration stream designed to more efficiently pair up skilled workers with employers in Canada. If this new program works as designed, the folks in the provincial immigration department believe it could open tremendous opportunities for Nova Scotia to attract talent from other countries, but it won’t work if Nova Scotia business sits on its hands.

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It isn’t going to be easy. Provinces will be competing for new Canadians. In the current economic environment Nova Scotia is starting the game with one hand tied behind its back. Taxes are higher, salaries are lower, we still have work to do to provide adequate community infrastructure for new Canadians and there are still prejudices toward immigration to overcome.

To work, it’s critical we see immediate, direct action from Nova Scotia employers willing to aggressively pursue skilled immigrants to fill labour market demand. While there is a cap on Nova Scotia Provincial Nominee Program, no such cap exists on Express Entry. If business can be paired with a worker that meets immigration criteria, the process will be streamlined for that skilled worker to come to Canada and eventually become a citizen. The feds are aiming at a six month process open to close.

Some of the result of this will presumably be a lower demand on the Provincial Nominee Program, opening up a wider array of immigration support options. Immigration also hopes to provide options through a Business Stream which will welcome entrepreneurs to Canada and offer more flexible options for business acquisition.

As our demographic decline continues, succession planning becoming a more and more serious issue in Nova Scotia. It is entire sensible to provide opportunities for small business to retire by selling their operations to new Canadians. Now is a good time for the provincial government to re-examine the punishing tax Nova Scotia businesses face when transition from one owner to another.

Out-migration, an aging population and a stagnant economy are all serious problems. The Express Entry system may be one part of the solution if it works as CIC says it will.