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John Risley, President, Clearwater Seafoods Ltd., at his retail store in Bedford, Nova Scotia, June 1, 2012. (Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail/Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail)
John Risley, President, Clearwater Seafoods Ltd., at his retail store in Bedford, Nova Scotia, June 1, 2012. (Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail/Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail)

Economy

Atlantic Canada's three wise men call for the inevitable Add to ...

The multimillionaire owner of a Nova Scotia seafood company says young people and immigrants are being driven away from Atlantic Canada because residents don’t like change and want the world to leave them alone.

John Risley, the director and co-founder of Clearwater Seafoods, knows he’s courting controversy with his remarks. But this week’s census figures are especially troubling, showing Atlantic Canada and Quebec are aging more quickly than the rest of the country. This has significant implications for the labour force and funding of provincial social programs. In addition, the region is bleeding young, intellectual capital because of the lack of job opportunities.

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Something has to give – and Mr. Risley, along with a group of key business people from Atlantic Canada, have started to look for a fix as they try to rebrand the region as a place of innovation and investment.

Last week, the seafood entrepreneur and more than 200 business people and academics (politicians were purposely kept scarce) met in Halifax for the second of three conferences, called 4Front Atlantic, focused on reshaping the region before global trends reshape it for them.

By next year, conference leaders hope to release a white paper with substantive recommendations on how to remake the Atlantic region for business and government. Mr. Risley says he wants to preserve “all the romantic elements” and “proud traditions” that made Atlantic Canadians the country’s “first pioneers.” But he also wants a shift in thinking.

“We are a very change-averse culture,” Mr. Risley said. “We want the world to go on and leave us alone, frankly. That’s the attitude: ‘Don’t touch me. Leave me alone, I’m very happy.’ That is a culture that is absolutely going to see the loss of our young people, and it’s going to absolutely preclude us being able to bring the right kind of immigration policy to bear and get people here who can help start the kinds of businesses [that will be]the growth engines for the economy.”

The debate at the conference focused on the exodus of young Atlantic Canadians and an acknowledgment of a need to increase immigration. The region lags behind on that front in contrast to, say, Manitoba, which has managed not only to attract but retain its immigrants.

“The reality is pretty clear,” said Kevin Lynch, the former clerk of the Privy Council and now vice-chair of BMO Financial Group, who along with senior Halifax lawyer George Cooper came up with the idea for the conferences. “What you do about the reality is much less clear.”

Against that backdrop, here are the priorities for change from three of Atlantic Canada’s wise men:

Retaining young people:

John Risley is one of the country’s richest men, worth about $900-million. Nothing can be done about the region’s aging population, he said, but “we can arrest the outward migration of young people” through job creation and successful entrepreneurship. He notes that three Atlantic companies – two software businesses and his Omega-3 health products business, Ocean Nutrition – have all been sold recently for a collective $1.5-billion. “They are proof positive that we can build world-class important companies here that are capable of attracting really bright people both to stay in the region and bring people to come here.”

Immigration:

John Bragg is the largest blueberry farmer in the world and, as head of Oxford Frozen Foods Ltd. and the cable television and communications company Eastlink, he has an estimated worth of about $780-million. “We just don’t have enough workers in Atlantic Canada to generate the wealth that we need, to cover our social services … it has to come from productivity …” Mr. Bragg said. He is critical of the federal government, observing that “we can’t find enough workers any more” at the same time that Ottawa is trying to solve the employment insurance problem on “the backs of a few people who are legitimately unemployed.” The solution, he said, is to “get some people in there and create more jobs.”

Collaboration and innovation:

Kevin Lynch grew up in Cape Breton, joined the public service and rose to the top job as Privy Council Clerk. He says there needs to be better interaction and collaboration between the business and university communities. “We’ve got a two-solitudes problem where our best problem identifiers are in our business community … and our best problem solvers are in our universities, and we don’t put the two together as well as we might.” As for innovation, he said the question is how to “turn a really good research capacity in Atlantic Canada into an innovation engine, working with business.”

Follow on Twitter: @janetaber1

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