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

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PPF: Atlantic Momentum Newsletter

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:

Port hope

The Port of Halifax is asking the federal government for $25 million from its Green Shipping Corridor Program to fund an ambitious decarbonization effort. The Port’s $50-million, four-year plan will see it use green hydrogen and its derivative, ammonia, as marine fuel, for “last-mile” truck delivery, as well as to power equipment at its Fairview Cove container terminal. It’s been working with the port of Hamburg, Germany — the expected destination for much of the green hydrogen and ammonia shipped from Atlantic Canada — to decarbonize operations.

“It’s not rocket science,” Port Authority CEO Allan Gray told allNovaScotia. “We’ve got to drive the availability of (renewable) fuels at both ends of the circuit.”

The shipping industry currently relies on heavy oil and accounts for three percent of global emissions. A number of alternatives, including LNG and biofuels, are seen as possible solutions but Gray says there has been a “pretty strong indication” that shipping lines using the Port of Halifax will move to ammonia-powered vessels. The port is planning to offer subsidies for hydrogen use — it currently offers $500 off a ship’s berthing fee if it meets low-emissions standards — and is buying a hydrogen-powered container truck to demonstrate its potential. The PIER, the Port Authority’s tech hub, is exploring a hydrogen fuel barge that would provide power to docked ships, instead of having them hook up to the electrical grid, and it’s working with CN on an electrical locomotive to move freight between the terminals.

In other eco-friendly shipping news, 24 fishing boats in Nova Scotia have been tricked out with solar and wind-power energy systems to cut fuel consumption. The systems are installed on top of the wheelhouses and are used mostly when the boats are in port, to power bilge pumps and electrical systems and to keep batteries charged. The Brazil Rock 33/34 Lobster Association, whose members fish for lobster in the southwest region, accessed funding from a federal aquaculture clean tech program to finance the project. The equipment also means captains don’t have to run their engines when tied up during cold snaps to keep their equipment and electronics from freezing up. “A lot of times captains have to go down and check their boats and run them for a day. Or if it’s in real cold weather the boat might run for days on end,” said executive director Dan Fleck.

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Off to a good start

The housing crunch has been a continuing challenge in Atlantic Canada but the latest numbers are showing promise. Nova Scotia’s housing starts for the first quarter of 2024 were the highest since the province began keeping track in 1948. The 2,158 units started — single-family, semi-detached, row housing and apartments — were 58 percent higher than the previous record, set in 1973, and nearly triple the first quarter of last year.

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which compiles the numbers, said Nova Scotia’s removal of the provincial portion of the HST from multi-unit apartment projects was a key factor in the improvement. Just over 80 percent of the housing starts in the first quarter were apartment units.

Duncan Williams, president and CEO of the Construction Association of Nova Scotia, said help from every level of government, as well as increased recruitment of skilled labour and the streamlining permitting processes has contributed as well. “It’s a little late to the game, but we’re glad everybody’s in the game,” he said. “It’s going to take time for these things to really kick into high gear and take a full effect.” Indeed, the province’s housing plan released last fall said it would need 80,000 units over the next 10 years, which means even the first quarter’s breakneck speed is too slow.

The rest of the region is seeing a surge as well. P.E.I. is moving at record speed, with 394 housing starts in the first quarter, almost double the previous high set in 1978 and twice as many as any other first quarter since 1979. The bulk of those were apartment units. Its five-year target, released in February, is to build 2,000 homes a year, so it too is going to have to pick up the pace. Meanwhile, Newfoundland and Labrador saw 263 housing starts in the first quarter, the most since 2013, and New Brunswick doubled the number of starts compared to Q1 2023.

Filling the gaps

Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) Health Services has launched a two-year effort to reduce its dependence on private agencies to fill staff shortages, promising to cut the number of so-called travel nurses from 340 to 60, roughly the pre-pandemic level, by 2026. It’s been a contentious issue in the province, and in New Brunswick as well, since The Globe and Mail reported that travel nurses were costing the provinces up to $300 per hour. Health authorities have said the pressures of COVID made the practice necessary, but unions have complained about the wage disparities and the failure to hire enough permanent staff. The Auditors General in both provinces are investigating the practice.

The NL Health Service said last week it would hire more nursing graduates, encourage casual nurses to take full-time jobs, offer a “Come Home” incentive to bring nurses back to the province and even provide daycare for full-time employees, all with an eye to boosting numbers. It’s already hired 156 internationally-educated nurses, as well as 300 recent nursing graduates who will start work this month.

“We’re trying to balance the need to remove agency nurses from our system in a systematic way over the next period of time, but also to maintain services,” said Health Services CEO David Diamond. “Some of those pressures are easing, we’re happy to say. But, you know, we still do from time to time have challenges.”

One such challenge is an anti-poaching clause that’s part of travel nurse contracts. Canadian Health Labs, which provided nurses to hospitals and nursing homes for two regional health authorities, has a mutual non-poaching clause in its contracts that prevents both the CHL from hiring away local workers and the province’s health authorities from hiring away CHL nurses for one year after the end of the contract. One of CHL’s contracts, which supplied 31 nurses to the Central Health Region, ended last week and The Globe and Mail reported that at least six nurses wanted to stay on and work in Newfoundland but were being held to the terms of the contract. Yvette Coffey, the president of the Registered Nurses’ Union Newfoundland & Labrador, said losing nurses would mean compromised care, service reductions and pressures on union members to work overtime and forego vacations.

And in New Brunswick, Vitalité Health Network, one of two major regional health authorities, is $98 million over budget for the first 11 months of the 2023–2024 fiscal year largely because of the ongoing use of travel nurses. Private agency staff account for $94.2 million of the overrun, money the province will have to make up. Vitalité said it should see significant reductions in the use of travel nurses this fall and plans to eliminate their use by 2026. It’s a big challenge, said Health Minister Bruce Fitch, because Vitalité covers more northern regions and more francophone areas, both of which are tougher to recruit into.

Give a listen

Sparrow Bioacoustics, inventor of the ingenious Stethophone app which turns a smartphone into a stethoscope, has launched into a market that can really use the help. It’s begun a pilot project with a group of cardiology clinics in Ukraine. A group of volunteer doctors recently used the technology during a foray into the war-torn Sumy Oblast region.

The app was recently approved by U.S. regulators, and Sparrow, which is based in St. John’s, had been trying to figure out where to launch first. “We wanted to do some good right away,” said CEO Mark Attila Opauzsky. Ukraine seemed a good candidate: it’s got a big problem with heart disease —mortality from cardiovascular disease is three times that of Canada — and the disruptions of war mean its people aren’t getting to the doctor for timely diagnoses.

The app allows patients to self-monitor and document their symptoms for later analysis by a physician. “The next phase [is] going to be really trying to push it out more into the public itself, in particular to individuals who have been displaced or haven’t had a chance to get to the doctor in a while,” said Opauzsky.

Deep sea tech, concrete plans

Two of Atlantic Canada’s new economy innovators got fresh funding last week to build on their early success. St. John’s-based Kraken Robotics raised $17.5 million in a deal led by Toronto’s Cormark Securities, money it will use to expand operations and strengthen its balance sheet. Kraken makes underwater robots, sonar equipment and deep-sea battery units for offshore exploration, wind farms and oil platforms, and for militaries and defence contractors. And it’s coming off a banner year, turning a profit in 2023 after a loss the prior year and seeing a 70 percent jump in revenue.

AlterBiota, a biotech in Sydney, N.S., has pulled in $4-million in seed financing to help commercialize an additive it’s developing to make concrete more environmentally friendly. It will use the money to expand its production capacity so it can move from small pilot projects to full-on industrial trials. “It gets us closer to breaking ground on commercialization,” said president Mark Masotti. AlterBiota’s bio-graphine oxide additive, made from forestry and agricultural byproducts, improves the strength and durability of concrete, and reduces its carbon footprint.

Busy skies

WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech went on a charm offensive in Atlantic Canada last week, making his first-ever visit to the region to mark the return of transatlantic flights out of Halifax and to outline the company’s vision for expanded service. Direct flights to London began last week, with Dublin and Edinburgh to start in June. Halifax will see a 31-percent increase in seat capacity from WestJet overall this summer, compared to last, and a 43-percent increase in total weekly flights.

The CEO promised the winter schedule would grow as well, and said the airline was even looking at setting up a crew base in Halifax for pilots and flight attendants. It’s “slowly but surely approaching the critical mass” of flight volume to merit the move, von Hoensbroech said, which would mean aircrew living in the city wouldn’t have to effectively commute to Toronto. It would also help with recruitment, he added.

He touched down in St. John’s as well to tout the airline’s thrice-weekly flights to London this summer, the first time since 2019 that Newfoundland has had a direct intercontinental flight offering. Seating capacity for St. John’s flights will be up 23 percent this year overall, and 35 percent in the summer travel season. And von Hoensbroech hinted more European routes may be possible if London proves successful. Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism Minister Steve Crocker said Germany might be the next target — it’s the second-largest source of incoming tourists, and the wind power industry is growing business links. It was good news for a region in need of more international connections, and a welcome distraction for WestJet, which is facing labour troubles. Its mechanics have given their union a strike mandate and WestJet has issued a 72-hour lockout notice that could mean a work stoppage as early as next Tuesday.

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.

On the horizon


  • May 10, Employment report (April)
  • May 13, Building permits (March)
  • May 15, Housing starts and MLS home sales (April)
  • May 21, CPI (April)
  • May 31, GDP (Q1)


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