How a few people with a dream can make a difference

The Confederation Bridge and university chairs transformed P.E.I.

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A conference in Charlottetown, organized by the University of Prince Edward Island last week, provided an opportunity for reflecting on how the right public policies can be beneficial for Canadians and their regions of the country.

In the case of P.E.I., the turning point was 1997, the year the Confederation Bridge opened, as well as the year of the creation of the Canada Research Chairs, which have transformed the culture of public-sector research and development in Canada, nowhere more so than at the University of Prince Edward Island.

As it happened, the two most important policy advisers behind the fixed link and research chairs were attending the inaugural Palmer Conference, endowed by Calgary lawyer Jim Palmer, whose family has Island roots going back to Confederation.

The political leadership for the bridge was provided by Brian Mulroney and Joe Ghiz, the prime minister and P.E.I. premier of the day, culminating in a referendum that took Islanders where they wanted to go -to the future. But it was P.E.I. native son Charles McMillan, Mulroney's senior policy adviser, who was the driving force behind the fixed link, a dream, as he said, that was as old as Confederation itself.

And it was Jean Chretien's government, with John Manley as industry minister, who created the CRCs, but Manley's deputy minister Kevin Lynch who pushed the research chairs onto the agenda in the year Canada balanced its books, which enabled this investment in competitive excellence. Lynch, who would go on to become deputy minister of finance under the Liberals, and clerk of the Privy Council under the current Conservative government, was the outstanding public servant of his generation. Now deputy chair of BMO Financial Group, he keeps his hand in public-policy issues, and was chairperson of the Palmer conference.

In Mulroney's PMO from 1984-87, Charley McMillan drove colleagues to distraction with his persistence about a fixed link, even putting up a wall-to-wall rendering of an architect's drawing in the second-floor boardroom of the Langevin Block. McMillan, an early proponent of the free-trade initiative with the U.S., was also instrumental in the creation of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency in 1987, and 23 years later ACOA is generally regarded not as a pork barrel but as an agent of economic change.

Mulroney was open to the idea of a bridge, but insistent it be built without government funding. McMillan and others found a way - they amortized the costs of the ferry over 35 years, and pushed for the creation of a public-private-partnership (PPP). In the event, the Strait Crossing consortium built the $1-billion bridge on time and on budget.

McMillan used to say there comes a point where the numbers talk, and these numbers are eloquent. A Royal Bank impact study showed that between 1989 and 1998, the first decade of Canada-U. S. free trade, P.E.I.'s exports to the U.S. increased by 600 per cent. Between the opening of the bridge in 1997 and 2000 alone, P.E.I.'s exports to the U.S. doubled to $500 million. Potatoes that once left the Island, occasionally to be stopped at the border of Maine, where they also produce potatoes, now leave a McCain factory at the foot of the bridge as value-added frozen fries. A second RBC impact study on the 20th anniversary of the free-trade agreement in 2007 showed that Atlantic Canada's exports to the U.S. as a percentage of GDP had doubled under free trade from 12 to 24 per cent.

And for those who think of Canada Research Chairs as being the exclusive domain of big universities, think again. UPEI, with no less than eight CRCs, is proof that a smaller campus can compete with the big schools. Recently, UPEI won one of the 19 new Canada Excellence Research Chairs, each funded at $10 million, and each a cottage industry unto itself. Says Lynch: "UPEI has become a mini-Waterloo," citing the research-driven university that gave the world the BlackBerry.

"There's a serious game of excellence going on," says UPEI president Wade MacLachlin, "and we have to be in it." An R&D culture around a university generally leads to other economic activity now ongoing in P.E.I., including clusters in aerospace and bio-sciences.

During MacLachlin's decade as CEO, UPEI has also seen its international enrolment quadruple to 500 students, about 12 per cent of its registration.

Would those world-class researchers, and all those foreign students, be on the island without the Confederation Bridge? These are not people who wait for the ferry.

The partisan pitch of politics being what it is in Canada, neither Mulroney nor McMillan was invited to the opening of the bridge that wouldn't be there without their vision.

Flying out the other day, without a cloud in the sky, the flight path took the Jazz Regional Jet right over the bridge. It was truly a wonder to behold. Well done, Charley. Well done.

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