The decision to close the Canadian Forces Base at Summerside PEI illustrates how Canada gets into difficulties by making foreign policy, defence, and regional development decisions in isolation and on the basis of outmoded thinking.
Prince Edward Island has taken some unique positions over the years. For example, a Conservative government overturned an agreement that the previous Liberal regime had struck with New Brunswick to sell electric power from the Lepreau nuclear plant. Also, Islanders' legislators limited the size of shopping malls and farms. Then a newly elected Liberal government even turned away a "high-tech" Litton plant that had been wooed by the Conservatives to locate on PEI.
Now, however, the only disagreement between the parties is over what to do to keep the Summerside base. How can an Island that rejected a Litton plant be so upset about losing a military base? The military is held in very high regard by Prince Edward Islanders, who still observe a holiday on November 11th and attend memorial services in large numbers. The respect and affection for the members of the Canadian Armed Forces who serve at CFB Summerside goes far deeper than mere economics.
Why would the military risk alienating such a supportive constituency? And why would a government, knowing how hard it is to develop economically depressed regions, deal such an economic blow to PEI? Restoring the level of economic activity surely will cost the government more than it saves by closing the base at Summerside.
Unfortunately, the government has not yet learned comprehensive decision making, despite all the rhetoric about integrating the environment and the economy. Even in a high priority area -- energy -- the government seems not to see the implications for the greenhouse effect of saving money by abandoning research into alternative technologies. The Summerside decision shows that our so-called Defence Policy is still based on traditional military values instead of innovative thinking. Now that the battle to save the Summerside base has been lost, attention can shift to demilitarization.
Closing Summerside will, in effect, demilitarize Prince Edward Island. People such as Seymour Melman have reflected on the profound economic changes that will be required if society seriously starts to disarm. More can be learned about this from what happens on this island as it tries to adapt.
Many imaginative ideas are coming forward, including the conversion of Summerside to a major industrial park (which is promising because of the availability of air transport), a base for monitoring environmental changes and fishing along the Eastern seaboard, or an international training center. Perhaps most promising of all is the suggestion by a new, high ranking committee to convert Summerside to a training centre for peacekeeping forces. Watch for further developments of this idea.
Peter Meincke is Chair, Group of 78.