How the welfare state in Atlantic Canada stifles innovation

How the welfare state in Atlantic Canada stifles innovation
Illustration by Michael DeAdder

Why Atlantic Canada is too entitled to be truly innovative

IF THE FUTURE BELONGS TO those who can carve out a place at the cutting edge of a post-industrial society, then the 21st century belongs to Canada—no thanks to its east coast.

The rest of the country may be busy remaking itself in the image of Silicon Valley, but by all accounts Atlantic Canada is still lagging far behind everyone else. The Conference Board of Canada relegates the region to the country’s economic caboose, trailing behind everyone else when it comes to innovation.

It’s not all bad news, though. According to Catherine McIntyre in The Logic, regional venture capital has increased by nearly 40 per cent over the last seven years, head and shoulders above the nationwide average of 30 per cent. Investors from around the world are looking to chase down and buy out scrappy tech startups, while this region’s traditional competitive advantage in ocean technology is beginning to pay off in spades. Atlantic Canada’s many post-secondary institutions also mean there is more than enough institutional capacity to drive innovative research and development in the oldest part of British North America.

So then why is Atlantic Canada still lagging so far behind?

Some people will tell you that regional underdevelopment is actually rooted in a deliberate, longstanding project dating back to Confederation in 1867, where national economic policies favouring the Laurentian Valley bled industry from the Maritimes and reset its development clock to zero. They might also argue that the region’s disproportionately rural population, uncompelled by the breakneck pace of late capitalist urban living and instead opting for a quieter life in the country, is a reasonable personal choice instead of a giant drain on our GDP.

These people are communists. The real reason for Atlantic Canada’s innovation lag is because everyone here is comfortably entitled to their entitlements.

Listen. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that innovation is measured in purely material terms like research and development capacity, patents, labour productivity, and available capital. Or that a sustained economic shift towards capital-intensive technology industries presents very complicated structural issues for a rural, labour-intensive economy, and may cause more disruption than economic growth in the long run. The real problem is very simple and straightforward: East Coast Canada is full of very bad attitudes.

Think about it. Necessity is the mother of invention. Even a casual tour through one of our fine maritime museums will reveal that the first of our ancestors to settle this land were incredible creative geniuses. The grinding poverty of life at sea, along with the dearth of cash it generated, meant that all Atlantic British North Americans had to do a lot with less.

Illustration by Michael DeAdder

Once upon a time, every dory on the Grand Banks was helmed by a skipper who could (proverbially) install a furnace into a cat’s arse using nothing but an old tin can and a few bits of twine. Some of the most advanced fishing technology in the Victorian world was devised by an east coast fisherman desperately trying to get a couple extra fillets per haul so that his wife could buy candles for the winter. Even the humble gas-mask—one of Canada’s great 20th century innovations— was crafted in the trenches by a soldier who was faced with a choice to either think outside the R&D paradigm or choke to death on his own blood in a cloud of chlorine.

This is the sort of cunning Atlantic Canada needs to rediscover: the Hail Mary panic genius that only comes when desperate people are trying not to die horribly. It’s the only way to kickstart our economy.

Obviously, I’m not here to argue in favour of another world war. I’m just saying that we need to raise the stakes in Atlantic Canada if we want to really light a fire under the region’s clinically obese butt. Hard times are what made our region great. Heroic fishermen, dutiful coal miners, the Irvings making due with less than 100 acres of land: we should look back on these achievements with awe and pride. Instead, modern living has made us inefficient and soft.

We all know East Coasters who would prefer to stay home forever and do exactly that: coast through life on the efforts of the rest of us. Unemployment benefits, old age pensions, and other trappings of the welfare state have made it too easy to stay in your hometown forever, instead of uprooting yourself from everything you’ve ever known and loved in search of a camp job in the Alberta oil sands or on a factory floor in Hamilton. This is the kind of lower-class ennui and desperation our society needs to cannibalize in order to accomplish great things. That you only need to relocate to your provincial capital, instead of halfway across the continent, in order to get in on the boom, should be greeted by every displaced resident with a loud cheer and a humble prostration to the Lord for His bounty.

Illustration by Michael DeAdder

There is a tendency among Atlantic Canadians to turn fatalistic about their homeland’s future prospects. This is a legacy of the culture of defeat that only arose because we started rewarding the indigent, the elderly, and the gainfully unemployed. Huge mistake. Once upon a time, everyone living on the edge of the sea had to either adapt or die. Now you don’t necessarily have to choose either. Is this really the world my ancestors fought so hard for?

I am inclined to say no. I’m sure that if I could travel back in time 200 years ago and tell my starving ancestors that someday my biggest existential threat would be lifestyleinduced diabetes, they would plead with me to return to the old-fashioned ways. Only suffering can bring nobility to our lives, and there is definitely no one who suffers now that our society is extremely integrated with computers. This is a lesson Atlantic Canada desperately needs to remember as it faces its greatest challenge: people living long enough to drain medicare resources.

But if history has taught me anything, it is this: eventually, no matter the odds, we WILL find a solution. It’s just the Atlantic Canadian way.

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