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

Earlier this year, 17 former Atlantic premiers and deputy premiers endorsed the PPF’s Atlantic Momentum Index. This landmark report put convincing data behind something that many Atlantic Canadians were already feeling: the region is on the upswing, outpacing the rest of Canada by some key measures. This weekly newsletter looks at news and events in the region through the lens of the Index: Where and how is Atlantic Canada growing? What policies are standing in the way of momentum?  Where are the opportunities, the failures, the successes?

Here’s what we’re following this week:

🏠 Extreme makeover

It may seem an obvious solution to the dire shortage of apartment units and skyrocketing rents: why not turn empty office space into apartments? That’s what Sidewalk Real Estate Development is doing with the 56-year-old Centennial Building in Halifax. It has gutted 12 of the building’s 14 floors so far with plans to have one- to three-bedroom apartments ready for renters in 2025.

Such conversions are expensive, however, and not always practical. They require extensive plumbing and electrical work for all the extra bathrooms needed in apartment buildings, not to mention dishwashers and washing machines. Unexpected problems often emerge when gutting an older building. Then there’s the matter of “de-tenanting,” as Sidewalk president Elliot MacNeil calls it — negotiating with remaining commercial tenants to leave or simply having to wait until their leases expire.

Still, there are plenty of candidates for a re-fit. A recent study by the Canadian Urban Institute looked at 11 Canadians cities, including Moncton and Halifax, and found 130 buildings that could be converted — with as many as 1,440 rental units possible in the two Maritime cities.

Thanks to strong population growth — they’re the two fastest growing cities in the county — both are facing tight rental markets. Data released last week showed the average rent on a new listing for an apartment in Nova Scotia was $2,097 in October, up 14 percent over last year.

A report commissioned by the city of Moncton recently pegged the average rent increase between 2016 and 2022 at 38 percent, more than double the increase in inflation over that period.

📈 Not bad, considering

If everything is relative, then there was some comfort to be found in the Atlantic Economic Council’s 2024 Economic Outlook, released to coincide with its Business Outlook conference series earlier this month.

It forecast real GDP growth for the Maritime provinces at 1.1 percent in 2024, down from 1.8 percent in 2023, and sees Newfoundland and Labrador’s economy growing next year at a rate of 3.2 percent due to higher oil production.

Though hardly a stellar performance overall, the Atlantic provinces will still collectively surpass the national growth rate next year, thanks largely to sustained in-migration. Prolonged high interest rates will dampen spending and investment, the Council says, and mean tepid economic activity.

Although robust population gains will cushion the region’s slowdown, this growth comes with its own challenges, it notes. The Council is urging governments and business to collaborate to ensure adequate services and infrastructure to accommodate a fast-growing population.

The (relatively) positive forecast for Atlantic Canada is in stark contrast to a decidedly grim Statistics Canada report last week on the national economy. It showed real GDP growth flat from February to August, population growth outpacing employment growth and labour productivity falling below pre-pandemic levels‚ having declined in 11 of the last 12 quarters.

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🚂 Building back better

Extreme weather has put environmental protection, in the literal sense, top of the agenda in Atlantic Canada. Last week provincial officials said plans to protect the Chignecto Isthmus, which connects Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, should be ready in 12 months.

More than just re-enforcing existing dikes, road, rail and telecommunications infrastructure will need to be bolstered as well. Still to be determined is who will foot the bill. The provinces are demanding the federal government pay the whole of the $600- to $650-million price tag, and not just half, as it has promised.

Nova Scotia has also announced it is putting $10 million toward developing detailed flood plain maps of the sort municipalities could have used, but didn’t have, during flooding last July. The maps are expected to be ready in 2026.

Researchers at P.E.I.’s School of Climate Change and Adaptation, meanwhile, said recently the province lost a record amount of shoreline in 2022 when post-tropical storm Fiona hit with all its fury. On average, P.E.I.’s coastline erodes at a rate of 30 centimetres a year, but last year losses on the west coast ranged from a metre and a half to seven metres on average at the spots where researchers measure. One area near Miminegash Harbour lost more than 25 metres of coastline. It was so bad a number of the measuring pegs the school uses were washed out to sea. The province has installed offshore “reefs” — essentially rock walls out in the water – at two sites, one to protect the Souris causeway and another at the West Point lighthouse.

✈️ Flight plans

It’s a perennial aggravation in Atlantic Canada — having to fly west to Toronto or Montreal or New York before being able to fly back east to Europe. But relief is on the way. WestJet is restoring direct flights to Europe — to London, Dublin and Edinburgh — next summer, with three to four departures per week. It also announced thrice-weekly direct flights from St. John’s to London, also starting next summer — the first direct connection from the province to Europe since 2019.

💰 Show us the money

Two weeks ago, the federal government’s $4-billion housing accelerator fund was a point of contention for provincial premiers, who complained that Ottawa was intruding on its jurisdiction, duplicating efforts and basically gumming up the works by sending cheques for housing development directly to cities without their input or permission. Last week, the city of Moncton happily promised to loosen zoning restrictions and cut red tape in return for one of those cheques — for $15.5 million.

Moncton will use the cash to provide grants to home builders and fund road and infrastructure work to open up new areas to development — it reckons the money will fund 490 new housing units over three years.

Moncton is one of 49 municipalities in New Brunswick to apply for money for the fund, and the first to receive a commitment. Mayor Dawn Arnold called it a “fabulous day.”

💨 Offshore priorities

Just what kind of energy will be generated in the waters off Nova Scotia may have become a bit clearer last week when the federal government suspended a licence to explore for oil and gas granted by the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board. Inceptio Limited won the licence with a bid to spend a fairly modest $1.5 million exploring a parcel of sandy seabed near Sable Island, 290 km southeast of Halifax. There are no existing oil and gas projects operating offshore Nova Scotia (the last two natural gas fields shut down in 2018), nor any other active exploration licences; this was the first one awarded in eight years.

Federal Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson noted it was a 60-day suspension that would allow more time to assess all relevant information. Environmentalists cheered the decision, and urged the minister put an end to oil and gas exploration for good.

Inceptio president James Edens told the National Observer that oil and gas can co-exist with renewable energy. “We believe synergies exist for organizations to work together in the energy space, to meet energy demands of today and tomorrow, while reducing our carbon intensity,” he said.

Wilkinson seemed to indicate which way Ottawa was leaning by saying he looked forward to working with Nova Scotia “on the transformation of the regulatory regime for offshore energy, by expanding the mandate of the offshore boards to establish a framework for offshore wind.”

A recent PPF report explored the potential for offshore wind energy in Atlantic Canada, and particularly on the Sable Island Bank. Author Peter Nicholson appeared on the podcast Insights with Don Mills and David Campbell to talk about the report.

💦 Spin master

Water wheels have been the motive power for industry since the days of ancient Rome, and perhaps before. Placed into fast-moving waterways, or at the foot of dammed up mill ponds, they were used to drive grist mills that ground wheat into flour; thousands of small towns still have millponds and abandoned dams. Now a P.E.I. entrepreneur wants to bring them back to life.

Andrew Murray, CEO of Aslan Renewables, has developed small, portable turbines — about the size of a fire extinguisher — that can be installed at these sites to produce clean renewable energy. The company is planning a pilot project to install them at three sites, each of which could supply more that 350 megawatt hours per year, enough to power 15 to 20 homes year-round. Which is not much, Murray concedes, but it’s clean, renewable and more reliable than solar or wind.

And there are 170 potential sites on P.E.I. and tens of thousands across Canada. “If we apply that same model to rural communities or developing nations, the impact there could be tremendous,” says Murray.

Murray’s “scalable” modular hydro dams even got a mention in a recent commemorative book launched on King Charles III’s 75th birthday. King Charles III: The Leadership and Vision of a Modern Monarch touted the new king’s environmental consciousness and highlighted a number of companies and non-profits operating in the space.

On the horizon

Reports and releases:

Thursday, Nov. 30. GDP (Q3)


St. John’s Board of Trade 2023 Business Awards, Nov. 23

Nova Scotia Tourism Summit, Nov. 28

Marine Renewables Canada 2023 Conference, Dec. 4-6 (Ottawa)

Atlantic Canada Solar Summit, Dec. 6

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