Nova Scotia: We Have Everything We Need to Succeed

Preamble: The concluding piece in this year’s Alternative Provincial Budget for Nova Scotia is written by Larry Haiven, who is Professor of Management, Saint Mary’s University. He has been involved in the alternative budgets for at least a decade. Larry wrote this when the Alternative Budget Working Group expressed dismay over the dominant negative discourse about Nova Scotia from pundits in certain sectors of the province. It was to be a take-off of the idea ‘you’re richer than you think,’ or the Nova Scotia version ‘we suck less than you think’. We had this discussion before the One Nova Scotia Report was released, but now this article serves as a rejoinder.

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There are two Nova Scotias.

One is a wonderful place, beloved of the rest of Canada, and the world. A place of economic prosperity and peace of mind.  A place of challenge, happiness and fulfilment.  A place that attracts tens of thousands of  people from outside its borders and to which exiles, like salmon swimming upstream, ache to, and do, return.

The other Nova Scotia? A place one curmudgeon wrote a whole book about entitled Backwater[1]. A place peopled with undeserving poor, justifiably scolded by newspaper pundits, rebuked by Stephen Harper for its “culture of defeatism.”  A place now regularly compared with Greece.  If you are a masochist, just Google “Nova Scotia” and “defeatist” together.

The recently-released One Nova Scotia Report aka Ivany report is a perfect example of this polarity—praising us with one breath, chastising us with another.

Wait a minute. Let’s get a grip, folks!  Even by their own metrics, the detractors have weak arguments.  But first let’s look beyond their metrics.

According to the Canadian Centre for the Study of Living Standards, Nova Scotia ranks highest in Canada in happiness.  That’s saying a lot, in the second happiest country in the world.  But 94.1% of Nova Scotians report being satisfied or very satisfied with life.  Are we a hotbed of self-delusion or do we know something about this place?  In fact, recent research shows that the most accurate way to gauge how happy people are is simply to ask them.

But we’re not talking about a passive sense of contentment. Psychologist Carol Ryff insists that perceptions of happiness include an important element of personal fulfillment by responding to tests and trials and difficulties.  She calls it “challenged thriving[2].”

Talking about happiness, Nova Scotia’s Ron Colman, a founder of our own Genuine Progress Indicator, spent years advising the government of Bhutan in its “Gross National Happiness” project, which touts happiness as more important than economic indicators.  They and we are onto something.

Is Nova Scotia really an economic basket case?  Economists usually measure standard of living in GDP per capita.  Now GDP has its problems and GDP per capita doesn’t measure how the wealth is distributed (that’s another story) but it’s a pretty good indicator of “well-offness.” Nova Scotia weighs in at about $36,000 (USD) per person.  Let’s put this in context.  That’s about the same as the US state of Texas, and higher than Illinois, Nevada, Hawaii, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.  And it’s higher than Italy, Singapore, Japan, Kuwait and Spain.  Not precisely your typical backwater.

Within the Canadian family, Nova Scotia and its Atlantic siblings have indeed been the butt of scorn. Even within prosperous families, somebody gets bullied.  But, as with personal income, the more fortunate like to pretend that their bounty is the result of, not luck, but hard work and righteousness even as they attribute personal character failings to those with scarcer resources.  Albertans and their national politicians, for example, conveniently forget that their province was a recipient of equalization payments right to the not-so-distant discovery of oil.  Did they become virtuous one day in 1947 when oil came gushing out of the ground at Leduc 1?

And what about Nova Scotia’s debt, that some say makes us the Greece of Canada?  Again, time to do a reality check.  Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio is 157%. Nova Scotia is 36.7% (down from 48.7% in 2000.)  The provincial auditor general’s recent reporting of an uptick in debt has provoked anguished cries of fiscal crisis from newspaper columnists and letter-writers. But 36.7% puts us right there with our federal government and considerably better than Ireland (117%) and Japan (211%).

Canada’s a country known for its physical beauty, but “Canada’s Ocean Playground” is no hollow boast. With 7,400 km of coastline, Nova Scotia ranks among the highest in the world compared to its size.  People from the rest of Canada, the United States and Europe have flocked to live here, permanently or for part of the year, for a century or more. They feed their imaginations with ocean vistas and turn those daydreams into products and services for the world.

National Geographic’s Traveler Poll touted Cape Breton Island as the number two travel destination in the world; Conde Nast Traveler rated it the world’s most beautiful island; Fodor’s Travel News called it an “island paradise.” Since 1997 Celtic Colours has drawn tens of thousands of Canadian and international visitors for an orgy of cultural tourism. Yet some Nova Scotians never tire of condemning The Island.

Filmmakers, musicians, and artists of every sort have hung up their shingle here.  For example, Wayne Grigsby, producer of such television hits as “North of Sixty,” and the two biopics of Pierre Trudeau, moved to Chester in the 90s with his production company “Big Motion Pictures” and churns out films and TV series in this province. Other filmmakers come here to use our highly-skilled actors, directors, technical crews and facilities. The Atlantic Film Festival, now over thirty years old, is an ever-strengthening magnet in the field. The Atlantic Filmmakers Co-operative has been nurturing local film talent for forty years.

Time and again, Nova Scotia surprises us all with the alternative and the innovative.

And talking about co-operatives and innovation, Nova Scotia is the birthplace of co-operatives in English Canada, starting with Father Moses Coady and the Antigonish Movement. We have over 350 co-operatives and credit unions, with combined assets of over $2.5 billion.  Over 242,000 Nova Scotians are members (about 34% of the adult population) and they employ over 4,000 Nova Scotians. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis[3] wrote convincingly that humans are a “co-operative species” hard-wired to help one another and that the very future of the world will increasingly depend upon cooperation.  Once more Nova Scotians are at the forefront.

All of the name-calling and hand-wringing and finger-pointing has a purpose, however: to convince Nova Scotians that we have little or nothing to be proud of and that we must ever remain in thrall to outside capital. And so it makes us afraid to get off the ideological treadmill that internally colonizes us.

Thomas Michael Power, author of Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies: The Search for a Value of Place[4], is an economist from the University of Montana who spoke in Halifax a few years ago. Montana, like Nova Scotia, is sometimes regarded as an economic boondocks since the natural resource gusher ran dry. But in a post-industrial world, what Power calls “the extractive view” of the local economy, where outside capital invests only to rip off, is fast giving way to “the environmental” view, where self-sufficiency, a sense of place, protection of Mother Earth, and the pursuit of happiness lead the way into the future.

We can abandon the treadmills and there are alternatives as the Nova Scotia Alternative Provincial Budget 2014 clearly shows.

The Nova Scotia Alternative Budget 2014: a budget for the 99%  will be released Wednesday, March 19th. For more information, visit www.policyalternatives.ca/projects/nova-scotia-alternative-budget.


[1] Peter Moreira, Backwater: Nova Scotia’s Economic Decline. (Halifax, Nimbus, 2009)

[2] Carol Ryff and Burton Singer, “Flourishing under fire: Resilience as a prototype of challenged thriving.” 2003.

[3] Samuel Bowles, and Herbert Gintis, A Co-operative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolutions (Princeton, Princeton, 2012)

[4] Thomas Power and Michael Power, Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies: The Search for a Value of Place. (Washington DC, Island Press, 1998) and Post-Cowboy Economics: Pay and Prosperity in the New American West.

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