It’s been more than four decades since Kevin Lynch left Cape Breton Island to pursue a career that would carry him to the top of the federal civil service, as clerk of the Privy Council. Atlantic Canada, meanwhile, has remained mired in economic stagnation, accelerating the outflow of young people. Globalization and fast-growth markets in Asia and Latin America threaten to push it further to the sidelines. Lynch, currently vice-chair of BMO Financial Group, is the driving force behind 4Front, a series of three annual conferences that produced an agenda for what he foresees as a private-sector-led economic turnaround in the region.
Has this been on your mind since you left Cape Breton?
There was always the idea that I should try to find ways to give back to a province and a region that has such huge potential.
In the past three to five years, there has been enormous change [in the world economy]; we are in danger of missing this pivot point.
Is this just another version of the Atlantic custom of seeking handouts from the central government?
The conferences were entirely business-led. It was the private sector talking about what it needed to do differently, and how to work together. It was very different than the typical thing where you expect government to make the future better.
What makes you think you can turn around the region when others have tried and failed?
I don’t think I can do it, but if you can mobilize the business community, they can do it. The issue is: Can you get a broad-based business constituency to understand the urgency for change—and the opportunities?
But isn’t it still top-down thinking—Kevin and his friends get together to devise magical solutions to the East Coast crisis?
We had 250 business folks there from all over the region, and yes, it would be nice to have doubled the number, but we were limited to that number. Also, we tried to use the 4Front website so anyone could have input and, in two of the conferences, we ran a process to engage young entrepreneurs. We got a fair bit of interest because we posed the question: How do we increase the chances for your sons or daughters to achieve everything they want by staying in the region?
Can you overcome a culture of dependency and inaction?
The world is changing so quickly. And in Atlantic Canada, we have some of the best entrepreneurs anywhere in Canada in people like John Bragg and John Risley. It’s not whether or not we can do it, but why are they the exceptions and not the rule?
The population of Atlantic Canada’s four provinces is less than that of the Greater Toronto Area. Doesn’t that suggest too much government and too few people?
Unambiguously, we have too few people and the people we have are aging more quickly than elsewhere. The solution has to be immigration. Atlantic Canada ranks near the bottom in its ability to attract immigrants. We have got to focus, like Manitoba, on finding the people with the skill sets, and not just to integrate them into the workforce but into the community.
Does the real solution to over-government lie in unifying these four provinces?
The real issue is having a common purpose which means getting governments working together. We can spend a lot of time on theoretical arguments of how to design government better, but there are practical things in the short term that would be better than the status quo.
What are key changes you want to see?
In addition to the immigration question, we have great universities but we are not commercializing or innovating enough out of them to create start-ups. And we have to get more Atlantic Canadian firms trading in other markets.
Is this the last chance for Eastern Canada?
There is a window. The window is not going to be as open as it is now for a very long time.
The interview was condensed and edited.