A must-read weekly review of the policy news, issues and events that are driving change in Atlantic Canada

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PPF’s Atlantic Canada Momentum Index offers proof that the region is on the upswing, outpacing the rest of the country in several key economic indicators. Each week, this newsletter looks at factors either driving or impeding that momentum.

Here’s everything you need to know:

The trouble with eels

Some people think eels are slimy and disgusting but they are in fact amazing. Every year, millions of American eels leave rivers and coastal waters to swim to the Sargasso Sea, an expanse of the Atlantic Ocean southeast of Bermuda, to spawn and to die. Their babies float away on ocean currents and arrive as translucent, 10-millimetre “elvers” at the mouths of rivers and estuaries on the Eastern seaboard, where they wriggle upstream to mature. Unless, that is, they are caught and shipped live to China, where buyers pay up to $5,000 per kilogram for elvers they will raise in aquaculture tanks and eventually sell to Japanese sushi restaurants.

With prices that high, poaching has become a huge problem, and for the last few years, the industry has descended into anarchy. Canada’s maritime eel fishery was shut down in 2020 and again last year, just two weeks in, following reports of illegal fishing, violence, biker gang involvement, and the shooting of an unlicenced First Nations harvester (by another unlicenced harvester). Officers from the Department of Fisheries laid dozens of charges, but the Public Prosecution Service of Canada has pursued no prosecutions, and have told the industry they don’t intend to. The bad blood includes accusations that Indigenous fishers who said they were exercising their treaty rights were in effect poaching. “Among these poachers are First Nations unwilling to work with DFO to access the fishery under a banner of moderate livelihood rights, backed by organized crime, specifically biker gangs and foreign smuggling networks,” Genna Carey, of the Canadian Committee for a Sustainable Eel Fishery, told a Senate Committee in Ottawa last week.

Last month federal fisheries minister Diane Lebouthillier said she intended to shut down the industry this year even before it got started in late March. There was no time, she said, to make the changes needed to both increase Indigenous access and assure a safe and sustainable industry. She said she was willing to listen to feedback before making the final call and gave a late February deadline. Last week, the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick, which represents six Indigenous communities, called for an Indigenous-led fishery that would work with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to monitor the industry. Meanwhile, Mi’kmaq leaders in Nova Scotia gave the federal government its own deadline, of March 8, to respond to a proposal they submitted two months ago that would include increased monitoring and a doubling of their total allowable catch. Last year, the six Wolastoqey communities in New Brunswick and four Mi’kmaq communities in Nova Scotia had 14 percent of the Maritime quota of 9,960 kilograms.

The First Nations say a shutdown would be an economic disaster, and a violation of their treaty rights. “It’s just going through all of our communities now that it’s potentially going to be shut down and people are just in disbelief,” said Gerald Toney, fisheries co-lead for the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers say the shutdown amounts to Ottawa turning its back on a problem it’s had lots of time to fix, and it won’t stop illegal fishing in any case. “Preventing legal fishers from doing their jobs will have almost no effect on poachers or Chinese buyers,” said Carey. “They will still be there illegally harvesting elvers. In some ways their jobs will be easier without legal fishers watching what they’re doing.”

Listen to WONK: Host Edward Greenspon talks to the Clerk of the Privy Council John Hannaford

Energy plans

At its facilities in Nova Scotia, Michelin Canada is pushing hard to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. “We see ourselves as leaders in this domain,” Andrew Mutch, president of Michelin North America (Canada) Inc., tells PPF. “We recognize we need to move fast. And we are encouraging the ecosystem around us to move as fast as possible as well.”  In our latest report on Atlantic Momentum, PPF looks at provincial efforts to build reliable, renewable non-emitting energy systems — essential for drawing industry and economic development to the region.

All four Atlantic provinces have committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, in line with the federal government’s national decarbonization goal. Significant progress has been made, but there is still work to be done. Both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, for instance, still burn coal. Federal regulations demand it be phased out by 2030. And electrical grids will need to be completely non-emitting by 2035. Meanwhile, new capacity needs to be built.

Power Plays: How to build a renewable energy future in Atlantic Canada outlines what’s being done in each province and how they plan to meet their ambitious and urgent goals. As Mutch notes, “The opportunity for Nova Scotia and the Atlantic provinces is clear. The need for the transition is clear but the time is short.”

A helping wind

The federal government gave a boost last week to World Energy GH2’s planned green hydrogen/ammonia facility in western Newfoundland with a $128-million loan facility from Export Development Canada. Project Nujio’qonik expects to produce about 250,000 tonnes of green hydrogen per year using renewable energy from 328 wind turbines, and convert much of it to ammonia at a plant in Stephenville starting in early 2026. (Nujio’qonik is the Mi’kmaq name for Bay St. George, and means ‘where the sand blows.’)

World Energy CEO Sean Leet conceded that the timeline is tight, and federal labour minister Seamus O’Regan told reporters, “We are here today because World Energy GH2 is in a hurry. We need to get this project off the ground and signal to the world we are in the green hydrogen game now.” Given the project’s estimated total cost of $12-billion, the federal funding would seem a drop in the bucket, and renewable energy advocates have worried that government incentives in Canada have been less generous than the U.S. But Leet said the full suite of government assistance, including investment tax credits, possible contracts for difference (a kind of backstop for hydrogen prices) and loans of the sort announced last week “allows us to keep pace, maybe even move ahead of the U.S.”

Another renewable energy source got a boost last week. Legislation in Nova Scotia to overhaul how electricity is regulated in the province also lifted a ban on nuclear energy development that’s been in place since 2009. Natural Resources and Renewables Minister Tory Rushton said nuclear would not be able to help get the province off coal by 2030, but that the government wanted to keep all options open for the future. Nova Scotia Power said it has looked at Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) as part of its resource planning out to 2048.

The two private sector developers of SMRs in New Brunswick said they were eager to talk to the province. Rory O’Sullivan, CEO of Moltex Energy Canada, noted that Nova Scotia’s plan to get to net zero was “highly reliant on wind,” which is by nature intermittent. “You need stable nuclear power to be able to deal with that and ensure constant supply.”

Bill Labbe, the president and CEO of Arc Clean Technology, said the change “reflects the growing sentiment across the country and around the world about the need for all sources of clean energy as we transition to a zero-carbon future.”

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Not dead yet

Oil and gas are not exactly clean energy, but the Atlantic Economic Council last week made the case that it’s going to be needed for the foreseeable future. The council’s latest report on the transition to a net-zero economy, What is the future of Oil Refining in Atlantic Canada?, focuses largely on Irving Oil’s Saint John refinery, Canada’s largest. It accounted for 50 percent of Canada’s refined oil exports in 2021, and the industry employed more than 1,600 people in the region in 2019, 60 percent of those at Irving Oil.

While other refineries, like the Braya Renewable Fuels Facility in Come-by-Chance, Newfoundland and Labrador, have converted to producing renewable fuels, a full or partial conversion at Saint John could mean a threat to Canada’s energy security and rising fuel costs. It would also mean “carbon leakage” — whereby Canada contributes to growing global emissions by importing oil from nations with few carbon restrictions. The refinery has taken steps to go greener, the report noted, investing an average $200 million per year in “turnaround projects” and sustainability over the last two decades, “suggesting it is a profitable refinery that should be able to navigate the net-zero transition.” Its emissions per barrel of capacity are four percent below the national average. Irving should continue improving sustainability through increased biofuel blending, further investments in renewable natural gas and possibly even hydrogen or wind power.

The company has bought renewable energy certificates from Saint John Energy’s Burchill wind farm, “a step in the right direction,” the report notes. Meanwhile, another sort of transition is underway at Irving Oil. President Ian Whitcomb will be leaving in June after eight years in the job and 29 years at the company. The move comes as Irving Oil is in the midst of a strategic review and it led to speculation that review could mean a full or partial sale of the company. A statement from board member Maureen Kempston-Darkes said only the review is ongoing and “outcomes associated with it are not yet clear.”

Save the date: PPF Frank McKenna Awards 2024 celebrates leaders making Canada and the Atlantic region richer through their ingenuity and initiative. This year’s event will take place on Oct. 10 at Pier 21 in Halifax. Register now — and stay tuned for announcements about our 2024 honourees. 

Good news, we’d venture to say

Canada’s start-up ecosystem was not so fertile in 2023, with venture capital investment dropping more than 30 percent, from $10 billion to $6.9 billion, according to numbers released last week from the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association (CVAC). So Atlantic Canada’s drop of 9.5 percent, from $230 million to $208 million, looks good by comparison.

And Entrevestor, a website that tracks new economic finance and development, says it’s even better than that. The CVAC numbers excluded $27-million in capital raised just before year-end by Spellbook, which sells AI solutions to lawyers. Spellbook’s main office is in Toronto, but its corporate address is in St. John’s, its history is “deeply intertwined with the St. John’s startup ecosystem” and its co-founder and CEO Scott Stevenson is based there — and he says it’s a Newfoundland company.

Nova Scotia had a particularly good year, with a record $161-million in venture capital invested across 20 deals. The sector got an added boost last week when Invest Nova Scotia announced it was making up to $60 million available to privately-managed venture funds in the province to invest in start-ups. To be eligible, the funds would need to be based in Nova Scotia and match the provincial contributions.

UPCOMING: Annual Testimonial Dinner Honour Roll 2024 Join more than 1,200 leaders and policy wonks as PPF pays tribute to Canadians who have made outstanding contributions to public policy and good governance. This year’s dinner takes place on April 11 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre — in the biggest dining room you’ve ever seen! Be in the room where it happens.

Big plans

The budget season began in Atlantic Canada last week, with Nova Scotia and PEI handing down tax and spending plans that very much reflect the two great challenges facing the region — health care and housing.   Nova Scotia’s headline-grabbing initiative was putting an end to “bracket creep”: it will henceforth index income tax brackets to the inflation rate, so workers whose income goes up with the cost of living won’t automatically end up in a higher bracket — a kind of stealth tax hike.

The measure is expected to cost the treasury $13.4 million in fiscal 2024-2025. The biggest spending commitment is, as always, to health care, where the province will spend $7.2 billion, or 44 percent of the budget. Housing will get $200 million. Assorted other goodies include $19 million for an elementary school lunch program and $48 million to improve cell service in “dead zones.”   PEI will spend $3.23 billion in 2024-25, with roughly one-third of that going to health care. Nearly $10 million will go to the new medical school setting up at UPEI, with another $6.2 million to recruit and retain health-care workers. The province is planning to spend more than $25 million on “community development and infrastructure,” which includes tax rebates for builders of multi-unit housing and money for affordable housing and shelters.

Opposition parties in both provinces were predictably unimpressed, saying the budgets did too little to help those under financial pressure. “I know we are going to have a generation of Nova Scotians who are going to be trapped in poverty because of this government’s inattention to their issues and their concerns,” said Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Zach Churchill. PEI’s interim Liberal Leader Hal Perry noted the province has increased spending by $1 billion since it took office in 2019, but “affordability appears to be neglected.”

Stormy times for storm chip lovers

Some sad news out of New Brunswick: the Covered Bridge Potato Chips factory in Hartland burned down on Friday night. No one was seriously injured but the building appeared to be a total loss. According to one worker, the fire started in the fryer room and quickly escalated. In a joint statement the premier and other ministers said: “This is a major employer in the region and a devastating loss for the company’s owners, their employees, and families. Covered Bridge, which started production in 2009, has been a tremendous presence in the community and has helped to boost the local economy as a growing business and a tourism draw.”

On the horizon


  • March 7, Building permits (January 2024)
  • March 15, Housing starts (February 2024)
  • March 18, MLS House Price Index (February 2024)
  • March 19, Consumer Price Index (February 2024)
  • March 27, Tourism indicators (fourth quarter 2023)


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This newsletter is produced by journalists at PPF Media. It maintains complete editorial independence.