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The Maritime provinces are broke. If union is not the answer, what is?

Nova Scotia Senator Stephen Greene has made a compelling argument in favour of uniting the three Maritime provinces. But there is a very large pachyderm in the debate that he neglects to address: The other provinces would never allow it.

Let's look at the case for union a bit more closely, before considering the problem of provincial opposition.

Senator Greene, New Brunswick Senator John Wallace and PEI Senator Mike Duffy, Conservatives all, are spearheading a campaign to merge the three Maritime provinces.

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In a speech to the Halifax West Conservative Riding Association, Senator Greene laid out his case for union.

All three provinces, he observed, are chronically dependent on equalization grants from Ottawa, largely financed by taxpayers from the other provinces. None of the three has made any serious effort to become self-sustaining.

"It is morally indefensible, I believe, to be content to receive [equalization] without doing everything you can to avoid receiving it," he declared.

That federal funding helps pay for bureaucracies that are the true basis of the Maritime economy. Twenty-six per cent of all the jobs in Nova Scotia are in the federal or provincial public service. In British Columbia, the figure is 17 per cent.

Government bloat is nowhere more evident than in the provincial assemblies. Combined, the three provinces have 134 MLAs; Ontario, with seven times their population, makes do with 106.

The three provinces compete for what scarce private-sector wealth is available, throwing up non-tariff barriers against each other.

"In many ways, our provincial boundaries are artificial," Senator Greene maintained. "They, in fact, divide us. They divide a group of people who came here about the same time, who have the same, or very similar, ethnicity and histories, and who have very common problems and aspirations.

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"…These divisions prevent us from capitalizing on our skills, talents and culture and showing them to the world."

An eloquent plea. But the obstacles to union are probably insuperable. It is hardly surprising that PEI Premier Robert Ghiz and Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter have already come out four-square against the idea.

But even if a groundswell of popular support for union overcame local political resistance, convincing the rest of the country might prove impossible.

Taking Canada from a union of 10 provinces to a union of eight would require a constitutional amendment with support from all the other provinces. Think of the objections we could expect.

Newfoundland and Labrador, which would suddenly become by far the smallest province, would chafe at being marginalized.

Quebec would oppose any change in the provincial balance of power, because Quebec always does.

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The Western premiers would object to a province that encompassed only 5 per cent of the Canadian population, but boasted 8 per cent of MPs and 23 per cent of senators.

"Knowing how petty constitutional politics can get, I wouldn't be surprised if any of the other provinces opposed it," said Ned Franks, the constitutional scholar who is professor emeritus at Queen's University in Kingston.

And would any federal government of any stripe be willing to devote a large chunk of its agenda to brokering a deal among the provinces to permit Maritime union?

The whole idea appears, on its face, beyond improbable.

But the fact remains that the three Maritime provinces are broke, with high unemployment, chronic deficits, mounting health-care costs from a greying population and no prospect of increased federal transfers. They are heading, in slow motion, toward their own fiscal cliff.

If union is not the answer, then another answer must be found.

Senator Greene vowed to press forward. "This is the first speech I am making on behalf of Maritime union. But it won't be the last," he concluded. "I am in this for the long haul."

That haul could prove to be very long. But if it forces the political leadership of the three provinces to confront the challenges they face, it will be worth the effort.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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