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Josh O’Kane: Good luck with that Maritime union (The Globe and Mail)
Josh O’Kane: Good luck with that Maritime union (The Globe and Mail)

JOSH O’KANE

Good luck with that Maritime union Add to ...

Maritimers have a strong sense of home. The vast expanses separating the provinces from Canada’s biggest economic and cultural hubs have forced Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island to define themselves by that to which they have access, creating fierce loyalties to hometowns and cultural traditions.

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I moved to Toronto three years ago and unquestionably became part of the problem that’s long plagued the Maritimes. Like so many before me, I headed west instead of staying behind and stoking the local economy. But I will, without question, always see myself as a New Brunswicker.

When the place you call home is so comparatively small and distant from larger Canadian trends and decisions, you learn to fend for yourself, developing a sense of identity from and intense pride for what you’ve created over generations. And that’s why a Maritime union wouldn’t be accepted by Maritimers.

A trio of Maritime senators have the best of intentions for the region in proposing a Maritime union, seeking out a stronger regional economy and a fair deal for the whole of Canada in evening out equalization payments. But a directive from Ottawa suggesting amalgamation would only further the pan-Maritime perception of isolation from Canadian decision-making, further taking away any identity that these provinces have cultivated for themselves.

Absent from the greater dialogue so far are sociopolitical differences and language politics that have developed differently within the three provinces. Would the rural and small-town New Brunswickers and isolated Islanders want to be governed with less representation, likely from as far as Halifax? How would Acadians (and non-Acadian French speakers) in New Brunswick feel about less proportional representation in their provincial government? On the flip side, how would provincial legislators from PEI and Nova Scotia deal with what would have to be a bilingual Maritime union?

These issues are byproducts of the different courses each province has taken over its history. From the outside, the differences appear absolutely trivial, but, to Maritimers, they’ve shaped our identities.

There’s no rivalry but, instead, an enormous sense of place in each province. PEI is the most isolated, separated from the other two provinces by the Northumberland Strait. Try telling Islanders they’ll need to identify with provincial political directives from a Mainlander. Or try telling someone from Tignish, PEI, that you loved the culture in Cape Breton – you might as well tell someone in Thunder Bay that you loved your stay in a Yorkville penthouse. And by all means, don’t try to tell someone from Miramichi, N.B., that their accent sounds like it’s from Shelburne, N.S.; to us, it’s as different as Texas and Brooklyn.

Politically, these differences are frivolous, and most of us associate with the Maritimes as a whole as much as our home province. But the fact that New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are each their own province, despite obvious population disparity, has given each geographic grouping of people a reason to feel like an important part of the greater Canadian picture.

Does this argument fall down a slippery slope? Absolutely – the economic disparity with the rest of Canada is one of the main reasons such hyperlocal identification and pride developed in the first place. But good luck persuading Maritimers to shed the cultures they’ve cultivated.

Asking Maritimers to assimilate into a single, easier-to-handle province might make it easier to press the economic reset button, but it would take away part of our sense of identity, however trivial as that may seem. Of course, just like these senators, I’m pontificating largely from the outside. What the region needs – and has always needed – is grassroots action. If change is forced through a federal directive, all we might wind up with is a little less government overhead and a marginally better Canada Games team.

Josh O’Kane, an investing reporter with Report on Business, grew up in Saint John.

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