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Stephen Harper decided to play it safe when he visited Halifax yesterday, and that's a shame.

The Alliance leader was making his first foray into Atlantic Canada since he got himself in deep trouble in May by criticizing the region's dependence on federal transfers and what he called its "culture of defeat."

After some Atlantic Canadians told him where he and his party could go, Mr. Harper took the hint. His Halifax speech was standard Alliance boilerplate, in which he mentioned Ontario, Alberta and Mississippi but managed never to name a single Atlantic Canadian province.

Such caution may be good politics (if there is such a thing as good Alliance politics down East), but it means that once again Canadians are failing to openly discuss the question of Atlantic Canada's relative economic stagnation.

It is somehow considered poor form to point out that the region is starved for private-sector capital, that the population is declining, and yet that most people there prefer to talk about protecting their culture. Most of all, everyone seems to shy away from confronting the biggest problem: Atlantic Canada is far too white.

There were, for example, 730,000 people in New Brunswick in 1996. According to Statistics Canada, 441,000 of them identified themselves as belonging to a single ethnic origin. Of those, 266,000 identified themselves as European. A mere 3,075 people identified themselves as Asian, while a grand total of 130 said they came from Latin America. About 6,500 people are aboriginal, while most of the rest simply identified themselves as of Canadian origin. Those of mixed origin mostly cited a mixed English, French and other European lineage.

The breakdown in other Atlantic provinces is similar or even more Eurocentric. Not a single person in Atlantic Canada claimed in the last census to be from the Pacific islands.

Looking at the immigration tables, of the five million people living in Canada who were born outside the country (most of them visible minorities), 55 per cent have chosen to live in Ontario, even though the province as a whole accounts for only 39 per cent of the population. Less than 1 per cent of them live in Nova Scotia, even though the province accounts for 3 per cent of the population.

Like so many of the problems confronting Atlantic Canada, the reasons why immigrants shun the place are self-reinforcing: There are fewer jobs there and fewer of their own kind.

"It can be lonely living as a visible minority in Atlantic Canada," said Sylvia Parris, president of the Multicultural Association of Nova Scotia, in an interview. "For an individual to speak for himself or herself, you have to have a cultural voice. And one important component of a cultural voice is critical mass."

It leaves the dominant European population of the region celebrating a set of largely illusory values. Atlantic Canadians treasure their sense of history, continuity and community. These are all, of course, wonderful cultural attributes. You can't be happy if you're not proud of where you come from. But in Atlantic Canada, that celebration masks a chronic cultural insularity. The region celebrates community because it lacks diversity.

Most Atlantic Canadians probably don't even know what they're missing. Great restaurants are only the beginning. Immigrants arrive with a relentless determination to succeed that shames the native born. They bring skills, ideas and energy that, with each new infusion, refresh the host economy.

Beyond that, one of the greatest advances of the past quarter of a century -- as important as the rise to equality of women and homosexuals -- has been the disintegration of the taboo against mixed marriages. In most parts of Canada today, the sight of mixed-race couples is so common it fails even to register on the consciousness. Apart from the benefits to the human race of stirring up the gene pool, mixed couples cross-fertilize each other's cultures, producing the hodgepodge neighbourhoods that make our cities such civilized places in which to live.

Immigration is also the only reliable hedge against what will emerge as the single greatest economic challenge of the 21st century: depopulation. Thanks to declining birth rates, any developed society that does not bolster its population with immigrants is either already experiencing population decline or on the brink of it. Newfoundland lost 7 per cent of its population between 1996 and 2001. New Brunswick is in similar trouble. Nova Scotia and PEI will soon join them.

Optimistic politicians discussing Atlantic Canada talk about nodes of growth and targeted investments. The pessimists talk about dependency and decline. But what Atlantic Canadians really need to ask themselves is why almost nobody who moves to Canada wants to live there, and whether their beloved cultural cohesion is worth that cost.

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