At the end of last month, Premier Higgs delivered the 48th annual Fredericton Chamber of Commerce State of the Province Address. After a virtual edition in 2021, we were pleased to host colleagues and stakeholders from across the province for the first time in over two years – albeit with a reduced number of tickets available to allow for more spacing than in the past.
The premier’s speech highlighted some of the province’s successes over the past year as well as plans and opportunities for the future – to be sure, there are many reasons for optimism. Crossing the 800,000-population threshold is a major accomplishment for a province that had stagnated around 750,000 for many years. Cyber security and small modular reactors are two emerging opportunities for the province to be cutting-edge global leaders. Appointing Canada’s first Commissioner of Systemic Racism is an inclusive step forward and we hope Dr Varma has the opportunity to provide real influence and change.
From the business community’s perspective, the government’s role is to create the conditions for private-sector economic growth, and we encourage the government to view decisions through a business lens (amongst others). Of course, this isn’t the government’s only role – they also provide social services, infrastructure, health, education and more. Ultimately, it is the private sector that generates the revenue that government needs to fulfil its duties and therefore a healthy economy is a pre-condition for government to being able to do anything else. So while there are many positives and opportunities in New Brunswick, we still have to take steps to fully realize that potential and recognize the barriers that will prevent us from achieving our collective goals.
We attended several federal and provincial pre-budget meetings earlier this year and it was striking that many disparate groups agreed that housing has quickly become one of the top issues. Whether it was business associations, labour groups, social services providers, immigration stakeholders or anyone else – housing was often the first thing mentioned. We see this reflected in the New Brunswick and federal budgets released over the past month. Both documents aim to address the housing shortage – but with such a significant issue, we expect more will need to be done at all levels of government (and in the private sector) moving forward.
Given that immigration processing and policy making is largely a federal responsibility, it is imperative that our provincial and municipal governments work closely with them to help resolve bottlenecks, remove barriers and facilitate a more streamlined process for all immigration streams. Just this week, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada released data that shows 10,000 more individuals are waiting for paperwork to be processed after Premier Higgs pegged that number at 2,500 recently. There is a disconnect that must be resolved immediately.
Access to primary care is another huge issue with cascading effects. Not only is the lack of primary care options a deterrent to attracting new employees and businesses to the province, but it also produces worse (and more expensive) health outcomes. New Brunswick remains one of the oldest provinces in the country and it is well recognized that health care costs increase exponentially later in life. Ultimately, this reality must lead the federal government to providing demographically-weighted health transfers to provinces like New Brunswick in order to meet the goal of the Canada Health Act to provide equivalent service throughout the country.
The province’s infrastructure deficit is another issue that must be faced methodically and logically. Having the right infrastructure at the right time is critical for both reaching our economic potential and having livable communities that people want to come to (and more importantly, stay). We have advocated to governments many times to differentiate between spending and investing when make budget decisions – this is perhaps most clear with infrastructure decisions. This is part of the reason that New Brunswick’s books are in better shape through the pandemic than other provinces, but the fact of the matter is that there is federal money available to be leveraged and we should not shy away from making the right investments.
The common thread throughout all these opportunities and challenges is our people. Continuing to grow our population is paramount – but we can’t expect that trend to continue without housing, without access to primary care and without communities that are prepared to welcome newcomers and have the services and amenities to do so. 800,000 is a great number and I’m with the premier – let’s start talking about how we get to 1,000,000 – but we can’t have that conversation in a serious way without first addressing each of these issues.
Krista Ross is CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, a nationally accredited organization with more than 1,000 members, is an active business organization engaged in policy development and advocacy that affects the competitiveness of our members and the Canadian business environment. The Chamber’s vision is ‘Stronger Community Through Business Prosperity’.