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The Atlantic Gateway: A doorway to our collective misery, but are we in a position to stop it?

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

* Note: Sections of the following will be expanded upon with more details and statistics in following posts

***

The year 2009 was a roller-coaster, marked by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were being lost nearly every month of 2009 in the U.S., and in Canada, many tens of thousands were lost monthly, with January 2009 seeing a record 129,000 workers purged. Canada's gap between the rich and poor is now at the worst level ever. Over the whole world, millions of jobs were lost as companies bled workers from their bodies in order to save weight to try and survive the fall with less damage. In China, there were 40 million jobs lost in January alone, a consequence of the bust in U.S. consumption.

There were suddenly a lot of questions being asked about the stability of the capitalist system, even by mainstream economists. Clearly, there was a systemic problem at work. But the “solution” by governments around the world was to throw trillions of dollars of bailout money at banks and other giant corporations to try and bring everything back to “normal”. Workers and poor people around the world are paying the price for the bailouts and corporate tax breaks: social supports are gutted. The reality is that money being given to the rich is being taken from others – a gross wealth transfer.

Then, at the conclusion of the year, people around the world watched on the edge of their seats as the Copenhagen Climate Conference proceeded to bring about no real solutions to environmental catastrophe, and a fluffy speech by Obama. The climate crisis perpetuates. It's just a piece of the larger environmental crisis of an increasingly toxified environment. And now we can watch more financial gambling take place over carbon trading.

None of what is happening is accidental. The root of the problem is the whole system of exploitation, of both people and the environment. The relentless drive for profits – and the legal and physical advance of a system, capitalism, based on this motive – is the real source of the economic and environmental crises. Many millions are going to die and suffer horribly as a consequence of this present system continuing. The dual crises have upped the pressure and put people who are victims in a position where we must focus our struggles for our survival.

Clearly, there are daunting challenges for people to try and get through this mess that we did not orchestrate, but looking at the global picture and seeing how messed up everything is can be very defeating.

We have to start from where we are: identify how and where the destructive system is advancing in our region. In different regions around the world, there are major infrastructural developments around which elite business interests organize, which they design to fit neatly into the picture of trade through global capitalism.

 

THE LOCAL CHALLENGE

In our region of Atlantic Canada, the perpetuation of capitalism is being organized largely around one particular concept, the Atlantic Gateway. The federal government and regional provincial governments have backed the idea of the Atlantic Gateway, which arose from a larger concept called Atlantica, concocted by the private sector and their research associates (www.atlantica.org). For most of the rest of this little essay, I refer to the overall idea as “the Gateway”.

Background on Atlantica

Atlantica is a trade region made up of the four Atlantic provinces, the Gaspe region of Quebec and the States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Upstate New York. It is being pushed as a transportation and energy corridor and free trade zone through the said region. The idea has been heavily backed by the privately funded Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) since around 2000, and has since 2004 been also pushed by the Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce.

The reasoning behind Atlantica is that there is a massive quantity of commodities and energy that is straining to get from the low wage production facilities of Asia to the giant consumption markets of the U.S., but lacks efficiency of movement in that direction, thus limiting the rate of profit for corporations. West Coast ports are congested and ports on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. are in a similar state of stuffage. Building Atlantica is largely about improving the region's ability to deal with this efficiency “problem”. The main targets for development in Atlantica would be the improvement of transportation (ports, ships, highways, rail, etc) and energy production and transmission (plants, refineries, pipelines, etc). Additionally, the pushers of Atlantica seek to break down “trade barriers” (regulations that limit corporate profits). They would have no desire to go forward unless it is on their terms.

It should also be pointed out that it is a two-way gateway. Trade already moves in both directions, both to and from overseas markets, though Canada and the U.S. are primarily importing. If / when conditions suffice to transform the Atlantic region into an increased producer of profitable (cheaply produced) exports for growing markets elsewhere – including Asia – that will happen under the direction of the private sector. Such a move would only make sense if wages in this the Gateway region are depressed relative to various locales in overseas markets.

The major selling point of Atlantica is the port of Halifax, a deep water port that is relatively uncongested, ice-free and closer to Europe than any other East Coast port. The corporate planners are advertising the idea that shipping companies should bring their commodities on giant post-Panamex ships from Asia, through the Suez Canal route to Halifax instead of using smaller ships from Asia through the shallower Panama Canal route to the Eastern Seaboard. What will end up happening, and the corporate planners are aware of this, is that all routes will be used in order to keep congestion low and a steady flow.

From Atlantica to the Gateway

The Atlantic Gateway is the name that the federal government and regional provincial governments are giving to their initiative to support Atlantica. The main reason for the separation from the Atlantica concept is to limit the criticism that governments are simply taking direction from the private sector; of course, that is exaclty what they are doing. The official name for the initiative that Canadian governments (feds and provinces) are supporting is “Canada's Atlantic Gateway”. The Gateway region is made up of the four Atlantic Provinces. In addition to the port of Halifax, this initiative includes development of other ports in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The federal/provincial initiative is focused on development of transportation infrastructure and regulatory harmonization. In 2007, the Canadian government made serious its commitment to the Gateway by creating a position, Minister of the Atlantic Gateway, filled by Peter MacKay (and just re-filled by Keith Ashfield). Since 2007, there have been numerous amounts of money put towards the Gateway through various Government programs and departments. This includes part of the $2 billion Gateway fund, which is supposed to be shared between the Atlantic Gateway and the Pacific version, which flies under the flag, “Pacific Northwest Economic Region.”

 

HOW THE GATEWAY HURTS US

 

Exploitation of labour

The Gateway rests on one main principle: that there are people who have the role of being cheap labourers and others whose lot it is to be gluttonous consumers because they have relatively more income. Higher profits are produced if commodities move from the point of production to the point of consumption faster and more often. Although there have been slight shifts due to the present crisis, the major cheap production zone is the continent of Asia and the major consumption zone (per capita) is the U.S. The Gateway region is seen, by its pushers, as an area that MUST be prioritized to transfer commodities from the production zone to the consumption zone as cheaply and as efficiently as possible to ensure that the companies moving the commodities retain their desired profit margins. This is the driving force behind the Gateway, this treadmill of exploitation, which does not benefit workers at either end. Without a significant inequality in wages from one zone to the other, the Gateway would make no sense because of transportation costs. The inequality of wages is wider than an ocean, but both groups are worlds apart from the bosses, who pocket massively.

Job insecurity in Atlantic Canada

Most of the Gateway-associated jobs would be short-term construction jobs that may last for a few months or a few years at most. Think highways, port enhancements, pipelines, etc. There will also be summer tourism related jobs based on expanded cruise ship visits, also part of the Gateway strategy. Perhaps some of the jobs may pay reasonably okay by today's low standards, but since EI is getting harder to access as programs are made more inaccessible during the crisis (because of gutted of social spending), people will end up in fairly difficult circumstances during their long periods of unemployment. Of course, there will be other jobs that are more long-term and higher paying in the Gateway region, mainly managers, planners and other white-collar positions, but these higher paying jobs will be very low in number. Additionally, depending on the fluctuations in global trade patterns, gateway activity could go up or down, which would obviously affect the job availability at times. 

Free Trade

The Gateway is very clearly an extension of the despicable North American Free Trade Agreement, an accord that aims to destroy any regulations that stands in the way of corporate profits in North America. The Gateway is simply a plan to push NAFTA further by focusing developments in the Atlantic Canada region in a cohesive way to suit collective corporate interests in the region.

Transportation rules have already been changed through the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and the State of Maine since 2008 to accommodate super trucks called truck trains, or more officially, Long Combination Vehicles. These double/triple trailer vehicles are more treacherous on the roads and cause more wear and tear. Expensive highway expansions (costs in the billions) are necessary as these beasts enter onto the roads.

Labour regulations and general standards are on the horizon for changes as well. Since 2006, Gateway proponents have taken issue with unionized work forces and minimum wage legislation as being “public policy distress factors”. One very recent (October 2009) proposal from AIMS is the call for Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Atlantic Canada. An SEZ is a defined space where laws and regulations, especially those related to trade, are more liberal than in the rest of a country, allowing for more competitive (lower) wages and other conditions likely to attract more investment. An example of an SEZ is the Maquiladora sweatshop zone in Mexico.

Additionally, Brian Lee Crowley, former President of AIMS, has spoken about using NAFTA to introduce a guest worker program to bring workers from Mexico to drive the trucks moving Atlantica cargo. Guest workers have no status other than their employment status with the company they are working for, severely limiting their bargaining rights, human rights in general and access to services. Thus, non-unionized, unprotected guest workers from Mexico would be pitted against domestic workers to drive down wages and standards. Even though everyone would be working the same job, some people would have to deal with worse working conditions because of where they come from. Differential treatment = racism. In addition to truck driving, guest workers have also been described as needed to meet the supposed labour shortage for work on energy projects in the Gateway region.

Prioritization of spending

Mountains of money are being thrown at Gateway developments, currently justified as “stimulus spending” in response to the economic crisis. Another way to look at it is that resources are being TAKEN AWAY from other areas and being put into the Gateway. Focusing funds on the Gateway is entirely about governments placing their bets on capitalism rather than on the priorities of the people who live and work in the region. Throwing money at large corporations removes the capacity to deal with pressing environmental and social realities. Present circumstances – rising oil prices and the precariousness of funds due to the crisis – strengthen the need for stronger localized economies: re-vitalized agriculture, affordable and free housing, re-design and dismantling of certain energy infrastructure, bringing back production facilities of textiles and other important resources from abroad to local areas, etc. A lot of education / skill-building would be required as part of the transitional process. If people who actually live and work in the Gateway region made decisions over production priorities and the distribution of resources, the focus would be on such areas as these, not the Gateway.

Environmental destruction

It should be pretty obvious that the Gateway is not something that is based around sustaining natural environments in any kind of a healthy state. Its entire purpose is to try and perpetuate the current system, and even to help facilitate expanded production and consumption to feed the profit motive – more trucks and ships, wider highways, etc. But when you look at the desired developments in the energy sector, it gets a whole lot more destructive. Gateway projects are part of the effort to ensure energy security for the U.S., which includes developing (in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals, more pipelines, a super oil refinery and a 100% for export nuclear power plant, 

Exacerbation of climate change is one thing, but poisoning people while cooking them, that's added torture. The reason so many dirty projects are being pushed in this region, even though the energy is scheduled to be delivered south, has to do with one painfully disgusting fact. People in Atlantic Canada and even parts of the Northeastern States are just not worth as much money as people in larger consumption markets in the U.S. That's the cold logic of capitalism: avoid pissing off people who are more capable of amassing lawsuits and whose property values are too important an asset to reduce in value by surrounding it with dirty projects. One example of the pushing away of dirty energy from richer to poorer areas has been the successful opposition to proposed LNG terminals (explosive, habitat-wrecking) in New York State. This effective opposition by relatively richer communities pushed developers to the poorer Gateway region, in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Maine.

Even more corporate control over government decisions

It's not like average people had much power to begin with, but a bad situation is just being made worse. In a capitalist system, private property rights are enshrined and protected as the ultimate priority, beyond the rights of people, and it follows suit that private/corporate interests weigh in beyond any public interests (i.e. public are kept away from decision-making).

Through the Gateway, decisions are being shaped at more of a regional level by the private sector, reducing the relevance of provincial or municipal governments over larger economic decisions. The regional Gateway project is considered too important to be left vulnerable to community-level opposition, so no forums for such opposition are offered. But the private sector has many opportunities for setting the direction. Their representatives have actually been outnumbering government reps at the annual Eastern Canadian Premiers and New England Governors meetings, where a lot of regional decisions are nurtured. Additionally, the Office of the Atlantic Gateway has a private sector advisory council (Atlantic Gateway Council, inception 2009), but there is no public representation from any other major grouping, such as labour, First Nations, the environment, students, etc. Considering the Gateway is supposed to be the pillar of economic development in the region, it's not like people don't have an interest in these decisions.

Indignity

The Gateway turns an entire region into a doormat, a place to pass materials and tourists through. How does that feel?

 

HOW WILL ANY OF THIS CHANGE?

The Gateway is the expression of capitalism in the Atlantic Canada region. It is a bold move, and only exists as a consequence of both the power held by the private sector and the weakness of social movements to challenge their advances. No worker or disadvantaged person living in the affected area would in their right mind agree to what the Gateway represents if they were in a position to stop its development. Neither would the proponents of the Gateway dare to try to move forward on such a strategy unless they felt their intended victims were vulnerable enough to be pushed over.

But people concerned about the Gateway have to be realistic in acknowledging the power and coordination of the private sector and the lack thereof on the part of social movements who oppose the advancing onslaught of capital.

It is a myth that capitalism entails corporations always at each others' throats in perpetual and unflinching competition with each other. They quite often cooperate in order to try and secure the continuation of their favoured system system. The game is more important to the big players than whether they are 1st or 10th on the rich list. How else do you explain associations such as Chambers of Commerce (such as the APCC), multi-CEO advisory councils (Gateway Council), or corporate lobby groups (Canadian Council of Chief Executives)? They are examples of capitalists cooperating. People opposing the Gateway are facing a very coordinated group of capitalists, who through their coordination have brokered significant government backing.

Change will not come from governments. Federally, provincially and municipally, governments support the Gateway. That includes the Nova Scotia NDP. There should be no illusions about where they stand. Waiting for governments to respond to polite demands is entirely ineffective. This point has been emphasized this past year with the the examples of the bailouts for banks and other large corporations and the the corporate friendly conclusion to the Climate Conference, both of which Canada backed and the citizenry vastly opposed. There are too many vested interests in the present system that guarantee politicians and corporations will stay the general course, with only slight tweaks made to quell brewing dissent. Even if the Gateway started becoming less viable due to rising fuel prices and the private sector is forced to somewhat concede to more localized industries, they will lose a negligible amount through the transition since governments are backing their bets with public money.

Solutions will only come from action taken by people: workers, students and residents on the communities facing deterioration. Key point: labour makes the Gateway go forward; withdrawing labour from the Gateway and redirecting it can halt the Gateway's advance and enable other possibilities.

But it is premature to expect there will be any capacity to change anything in a meaningful way unless some important groundwork is laid. The task at hand is rebuilding grassroots power and coordination amongst and between affected communities, urban and rural. This is a broad education, action and interaction project. Unless power can be rebuilt at grassroots levels and coordinated, we are not going to be able to do anything but complain into the wind and take small scale, token actions, granting no real leverage over our economic direction or social relations.

It is key that people that live and work in a region should control what is produced, how things are produced and how everything is distributed. Native communities who predated the destructive society we live in understood that principle very clearly.

The Gateway and a sustainable, equitable society cannot coexist.


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