Laura Lee Langley has been 'an institution' in Nova Scotia government. Now, she’s leading the federal agency for economic development in all of Atlantic Canada.
“For years, we were told we were the have-nots, and we were. But we’ve stopped thinking of ourselves as the kids with the holes in our shoes and we’re leaning into our advantages. We can create our own futures in ways that we never imagined before.”

“I’ve got another rodeo ride or two in me,” says Laura Lee Langley. After 27 years in the Nova Scotia government, where she was “an institution,” according to Premier Tim Houston, she planned to end her working days there. But then came the call to lead the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), one of seven federal regional development agencies, providing loans to small and medium-sized businesses in Atlantic Canada. She started as President in July this year. “The opportunity to look at the entire Atlantic region is very exciting – and the timing is right.”

Population and economic growth in the region continue to grow. As of Jan. 1, 2023, the total population of Atlantic Canada was more than 2.5 million, an increase of almost 80,000 from Jan. 1, 2022 (3.1 percent growth compared to 2.7 percent for Canada). In its most recent economic outlook, the Atlantic Economic Council forecast that GDP in the Maritimes would increase by 1.1 percent in 2024 and that Newfoundland and Labrador would register real GDP growth of 3.2 percent in 2024, both above the national rate of increase.

“We’re in a sweet spot,” Langley continues, much of it a result of the pandemic, she believes. “Because you could work virtually from anywhere, people started coming to these quiet places where you could have privacy, safety and beauty.”

Add to that an influx of immigrants from across the world — Atlantic Canada’s share almost tripled in 15 years, rising from 1.2 percent in 2006 to 3.5 percent in 2021, according to Statistics Canada. “It’s a beautiful thing,” says Langley, who has been recognized by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission as a champion of workplace diversity and inclusion. “When we’re welcoming, we’re providing opportunities, spaces for people to be successful.”

The longest serving clerk in the Executive Council in Canada, she has worked “close to the fire,” as she puts it, under three premiers for a total of eight years. Before that, she held senior positions in the government, including Deputy Minister of Treasury and Policy Board and Deputy Minister of the Office of the Premier, among other roles in tourism and communications. Her biggest lesson? “We can’t create public policy in silos. We have to do it in an ecosystem, in clusters of thinking, in ways that will provide a continuum” such as building long-term care facilities that over time could be converted to schools or vice versa.

Growth has brought challenges, she acknowledges. “For years, at least in Nova Scotia, all of our trajectories, all of our trend lines showed declining population. So we’re playing catch up with housing and health care. It’s painful. But we must have confidence in coming up with creative ways to solve the issues.”

Her belief in holistic policy development prepares her for leading ACOA, she says. “We can work together across the four Atlantic provinces, thinking about what we can do together rather than fighting one another for small pieces of the pie. “For years, we were told we were the have-nots, and we were. But we’ve stopped thinking of ourselves as the kids with the holes in our shoes and we’re leaning into our advantages. We can create our own futures in ways that we never imagined before.”

She sees opportunities in many sectors: the ocean economy, ecotourism, green energy, wind power, AI and ports in Saint John, N.B. and Halifax and along the Northumberland Straight, “where we can create advantages for those shipping into Canada and we can get goods to the Eastern seaboard more quickly than others can.”

Curiosity has been her fuel, she says. “I have never said no to an opportunity or a challenge even when I’m scared to death because I just always knew that I was not afraid to fail. I really owe a whole lot to that orientation.”

Born in Sydney, Cape Breton, she “grew up with humble roots,” the eldest of three sisters. Her father worked in the car business; her mother was a legal secretary. Both parents were committed volunteers within the community. She started out in journalism, working at a local radio station then moving to Halifax at the age of 22, where she pursued a career in television before switching to communications and public relations. A Masters in Public Administration from Dalhousie fed her interest in the intellectual and practical sides of public policy. “It’s about putting the citizen at the centre of the conversation,” Langley says. “I think that comes from my folks and the values that were ingrained in me to make me who I am.”

Langley exchanges information like a neighbour over a garden fence, offering insights as she sips coffee in her home on an early morning Zoom call. Asked about the region’s wariness toward those “who come from away” — not a helpful attribute when so many are moving to the area — she’s quick to say that “it’s an issue, and we’re going to have to really just whack it out of us.” It’s a matter of newcomers’ approach, she maintains: “If we feel you choose us because we’re special, you’re in. But if we feel you’ve come here to teach us or school us, that’s another whole thing.”

 


PPF’s Frank McKenna Awards 2024 celebrate  leaders whose ingenuity and initiative are helping to drive change in Atlantic Canada. This year’s event will take place on Oct. 10 at Pier 21 in Halifax. Register now and get a 10-percent early bird discount. Follow the registration link and use the promo code PPFATLANTIC10.