This house is on fire

For a long time, you smell smoke in your house. Unsettling acrid whiffs suggest something is amiss. Sometimes you try to ignore it. Other times you can’t help but notice and worry. Finally, you decide to investigate. You bring in an expert. He spends ages poking around your house, talking with your family, exploring nooks and crannies, studying your history and gathering information. Finally, he hands you his report. “Your house is on fire,” he says.
You’re not terribly surprised, but at least you have a report confirming what you always feared and secretly knew. You ask what you should do. “Well, you need to come up with a plan to fix it,” he says. “My report explains why and how your house is burning. No one in your family can agree on how to put out the fire. The federal government isn’t going to help you. Maybe private business can. Or immigrants.”
And here you sit, report in hand, house smouldering, more questions than answers.
That’s more or less the situation Nova Scotia finds itself in now. We’ve known since…oh, Confederation, that our economy is in a bad way, with each sluggish improvement offset by a boondoggle. Our population is aging, our talent running to greener pastures. Public debt remains a staggering burden. The Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy, chaired by Ray Ivany, spent months crisscrossing the province, talking with people about the province’s economic situation, looking for a way to transform Nova Scotia from a have-not province.
It’s a long report, some 258 pages, but I’m going to save you some time: you’ll find most of what you need to know in the foreword on page seven. “We do not, as a province, share broad agreement on the need for economic growth, and we have divergent and often conflicting ideas about how best to achieve it,” the report says. “There is division between rural and urban perspectives, and a lack of public confidence in private sector leadership of the economy. While virtually everyone sees the need for population growth and greater wealth generation, most of the practical strategies to achieve these outcomes are controversial.”
In essence: Nova Scotians might, grudgingly, agree on what our problems are, but there’s no consensus on how to fix them. “This lack of solidarity as a province undermines constructive dialogue about our future and makes us a more difficult and risk averse place to do business and build communities,” the report goes on. “It seems apparent that if Nova Scotia is to find ways to meet its current challenges, there will need to be change on the cultural level as much as in economic structures and government policies and programs.”
It’s little wonder the Commission suggests few, if any, specific actions Nova Scotians can take to solve the problem. We’re too fragmented and disunited—region pitted against region, class against class—for any to seem practical.
There is a bright side. We have a new, popular provincial government with a strong mandate. Premier Stephen McNeil has a lot of political capital right now. He must use it, and focus everything his government does on ensuring Nova Scotia’s long-term economic growth. To do that, he must make uniting Nova Scotians his top priority. Previous governments pitted regions against one another. Rural communities against Halifax, communities that want money for pulp mills against communities that want money for ferries.
The Commission found no consensus and, thus, couldn’t proceed any further than screaming, “This house is on fire!” Any solutions proposed would have been impractical pipe dreams. A Commission can’t impose solutions on people who can barely agree what the problem is. The best it can do is sound the alarm. It’s up to McNeil and his colleagues to bring us together, so we can put that fire out.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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