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Donald Savoie holds the Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance at the Université de Moncton and is the author of What Is Government Good At?


Justin Trudeau has accomplished what few prime ministers have been able to do over the past 50 years: Not only did he win a majority mandate, but his Liberal Party also saw MPs elected in all 10 provinces and the North. For the first time in history, a single party won all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada. It is a remarkable achievement and our national government is now able to hear from all corners of Canada, giving it strong political legitimacy.

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His father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, won a strikingly similar mandate in 1968; he also won a majority mandate and strong representation in all regions as well as the North (and both Trudeaus won four seats in Alberta, in 1968 and again in 2015).

However, winning a majority mandate and seats in every region is not without challenges. The prime-minister-designate will soon have hungry puppies at his door but little institutional capacity to deal with their demands.

The country's regional factor dogged the first Trudeau government and all governments that followed. It was under Brian Mulroney's watch that the Reform Party was born with its central theme – "The West Wants In." Jean Chrétien's government became an Ontario-centric party with little representation from Western Canada while losing every seat in Nova Scotia in the 1997 election. Stephen Harper's government could never get much traction in either Quebec or Atlantic Canada.

Canada does not have an effective upper house in Parliament to give voice to regional perspectives. It is no exaggeration to say our Senate has been a dismal failure in what ought to be its most important role – speaking for the regions. All policy issues, all the premiers and all MPs go to the prime minister for answers. There is nowhere else to go. Even once powerful regional ministers have become a relic of Canadian history.

It only takes a moment's reflection to appreciate that the workings of Parliament and the machinery of government place the prime minister in an impossible situation. Canada is a federation trying to cope with national political institutions better designed for a unitary state.

Our country has sharp regional diversity, is home to six distinct regional economies, ranks second in the world in terms of territory, has one of the biggest gaps among all federations between the most- and least-populous provinces and has to deal with a language divide.

There are important lessons for Justin Trudeau. Our national political institutions have little capacity to give life to regional perspectives, so he will have to invent an in-house capacity. The point is that national policies can never work in all regions unless they are put through regional lenses.

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A case in point is Mr. Trudeau's commitment to invest some $125-billion in infrastructure over the next decade. There is a need for such investments, particularly in mass transit in the largest cities, notably Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Atlantic Canada, too, needs investment, but of a different kind; we do not lack for roads and bridges, and Atlantic Canadians rarely have to deal with long commuting times.

Infrastructure spending holds a great deal of appeal. It provides tangible evidence that the federal government is active in the region (not to mention many photo opportunities for politicians). However, what Atlantic Canada needs for economic development is vastly different from what Southern Ontario requires.

New federal infrastructure spending in Atlantic Canada requires four cash-strapped provincial governments to come up with their share of the cost. It also creates new spending demands for provinces, which must maintain the completed infrastructure projects. Ottawa is not in the business of cost-sharing maintenance spending, nor should it be.

Atlantic Canada's challenges require policy solutions tied to its economic realities.

For example, the region has the fastest-aging population of any area in Canada, which will put downward pressure on economic growth and increased pressure on spending for health care and other public services. A partnership between Ottawa and the four Atlantic provinces on how best to rationalize health-care costs while retaining strong levels of service would benefit the region much more than adding a new stretch of road in any of these four provinces.

Atlantic Canada does not lack for educational facilities, yet the local business community tells me its biggest challenge is to find qualified staff to pursue new economic opportunities. And the bulk of the business community consists of small and medium-size enterprises – they do not have the capacity to explore new markets emerging from free-trade agreements with Europe and Asia (as might be the case for larger companies in other parts of Canada).

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This region also offers important potential in the energy sector, from shale gas exploration to the proposed pipeline to connect western oil to eastern refineries and ports. The federal government should voice its support for both.

I could go on with an economic development agenda for my region; this is just a sampling of what is needed in one part of the country. The important message for Mr. Trudeau is to recognize that six distinct regional economies require six distinct economic development agendas to prosper.

National policies that are blind to Canada's regional diversity will lead – as it has in the past – to still more regional alienation.

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