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Innovation is Atlantic Canada’s way forward

Illustration by Robyn Flannigan
Illustration by Robyn Flannigan - Contributed

The takeaway: We’ve got some work to do. Atlantic Canada ranks near the bottom for innovation ratings in Canada.

Why? An economy that invests in innovation will be more competitive globally and positioned for growth.

What’s being done now? Look to the oil and gas boom in Newfoundland and Labrador and R&D investments in aquaculture in Nova Scotia.


To a certain extent, the Atlantic provinces have been a region stuck in its past.

There are good things about this: our traditional culture, music, our diversity of accents and idioms, and deep family connections are the glue that unite this region and set us apart from the rest of the country and the world.

It is more than just a collection of little provinces on the east coast of Canada, it’s a way of life.

But there is a downside to with this model of regionalism too.

Culturally our long history and tribal social networks have made the region suspicious of newcomers. We are famous for our Atlantic Canadian hospitality but we don’t necessarily invite people who who look different or speak another language into our homes for supper.

This is incongruent with our history. Other than the Aboriginal people who have lived and worked in this region for thousands of years, the rest are immigrants.

Technically, most Atlantic Canadians are Come From Aways.

There is an irony here. In recent decades Atlantic Canada has not been attracting the immigrants and when they do come, they haven’t tended to stay. Many choose to resettle in other parts of the country like Toronto where they find multicultural communities that welcome them.

With the birth rate declining in Atlantic Canada and young people leaving to seek employment elsewhere, there is a shortage of workers which makes it difficult to grow the economy. As the number of retired people increases, there are fewer workers available and greater demand on services such as healthcare. This creates a shortfall in tax revenues to pay for the services.

... an economy that invests in innovation will be more competitive globally and positioned for growth.

And then there is the economy. Historically, the economy of Atlantic Canada was founded on the Three Fs of fishing, forestry and farming. Later came industries such as shipbuilding, coal mining and pulp and paper. But large-scale manufacturing never took off in this part of the world because the markets were too small and could not compete with larger markets in Ontario and the Northeastern US.

Over the years, businesses in the region have not invested enough in research and development to update products and processes and as a result productivity has lagged. New jobs have not been created and this has dragged down the economy. Lower levels of job creation and higher taxes has put us at a disadvantage compared to other provinces.

Successive government have recognized this and in their quest to get re-elected have sunk huge sums of tax dollars into economic schemes and mega- projects that have failed and left tax payers holding the bag. Think back to the 1970s with the heavy-water plant, the Bricklin sports car and the Mercador One cruise ship.

This has seeded deep cynicism and self doubt in the region and lead former Prime Minister Stephen Harper to refer to describe the mindset as a “culture of defeat.” That was a low blow but the memory has lingered.

Economically speaking there are bright spots and success stories, particularly in the ocean sector. The oil and gas boom offshore Newfoundland has lifted that province out of its have not status. Companies such Clearwater Seafoods and Acadian Seaplants have invested in research and technology and are exporting their products globally.

Governments, business and universities have decided that innovation will be the new shining apple of economic development and are investing in private-public partnerships, education, research, and venture capital funding, tax incentives to stimulate innovation.

Provincial governments have created early-stage investment organizations like Innovacorp and Invest New Brunswick which are homegrown sources of funding for tech start-ups. The biggest success story here was the $326-million acquisition by cloud giant Salesforce of Saint John-based Radian6 which created a social media listening software.

The federal government is also focusing on innovation, creating a network of “Superclusters” across the country. In Atlantic Canada it contributed $150-million to the Ocean Supercluster with ocean companies matching that amount to grow the ocean tech sector of the economy.

The idea is to grow the economy with by encouraging traditional business to create new products and processes, and to promote start-up businesses that develop new technologies that are taken to market.

According to the Conference Board of Canada, we still have a long way to go on the innovation front. It ranks Canada 12th of 16 comparable countries and the Atlantic region is near the bottom for innovation ratings in Canada.

So there is work to be done, but an economy that invests in innovation will be more competitive globally and positioned for growth. This will create good jobs, grow businesses and most importantly generate social well being for individuals, communities and regions like Atlantic Canada.

Gail Lethbridge is a freelance journalist who lives and works in Dartmouth, N.S.

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