The idiocy of Huddle. And the search for big ideas to save New Brunswick


Huddle is a news website that’s run by an ad…er…content-creation agency called Bonfire in Saint John. One of it’s co-founders, Allan Gates, got into the news a couple of years ago when he was advising Premier Brian Gallant on strategy.

Trouble was, it was unclear whether Gates-Huddle-Bonfire was a news outlet or a marketing outfit, or both. CBC quoted Kelly Toughill, a prof at King’s College in Halifax. “If there’s a commercial relationship and there’s a contract to make the government look good, and you’re also writing about the government, then that’s clearly a conflict of interest.”

These kinds of grey-boundary relationships aren’t rare—especially in New Brunswick, where all of the mainstream newspapers in the province are owned by one family that also runs the largest resource-based companies here—and have a huge stake in the outcomes of government decisions.

To defend the opportunistically entrepreneurial point-of-view, there’s a whole lot more money to be made cozying up to the powers-that-be than in opposing them. Which is where Huddle and its writer, David Campbell, landed last week. He wants the government, or big business, or somebody, to finance a two-week summit that puts “10 top thinkers” in a room together to come up with great ideas for New Brunswick.

Let’s not give Campbell too much credit. His writing rolls around like a box of rocks. He goes from questions like “how do we attract and retain a ‘wave’ of immigrants when we haven’t seen anything like it in 150 years?” to “I spent 2-plus years in government in a senior role and met and interacted with some brilliant folks but I can tell you there is very little concentrated and coordinated capacity for the kind of thinking that we need,” to “I am mostly personally running out of ideas,” to “I would like to have a kind of think tank that would be churning out ideas…Kind of a new Pugwash, but for local challenges that could be applied globally.”

Trouble is, David, that’s already been done. The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) has been at this for years. A look back at the think tank’s 2005-2006 annual report highlights papers like “Brain Drain or Brain Gain?” “Characteristics for Tomorrow’s Successful Port,” “Excellence is in Short Supply in Atlantic Canadian Schools,” and “Why Bureaucrats and Environmentalists Miss the Point of Canadian Aquaculture.”

AIMS has even flirted with the idea of a single united Maritime province, that would, in their words, “change this region’s narrative… Efficiencies—and countless millions in savings—would be possible right off the bat.” And David, get this, they even suggested a new capital city: Pugwash.

Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of the pro-corporate, pro-big business AIMS bunch. While they try to rouge up their policies to look innovative and progressive, it’s the same old neocon and neoliberal economics that has been failing Atlantic Canada for generations.

One would hope that Huddle-Bonfire, or any of the youngish, trendy marketing companies, might come up with a more honest approach to strategy. Rather than paying lip service to the province’s “problems”, they might take a look at the actual product.

New Brunswick is chock-a-block full of old people, poor people, rural dwellers, low-income earners, old white families with a generational grip-lock on land and culture, abused single moms, nepotism, conservative thinkers, francophiles and anglophiles, a couple of ungodly powerful families with mind-numbing wealth, lifer politicians doing their very best not to upset anyone who might hurt their sources of funding and chances for reelection, cliquishness that can defy description, and a propensity, as a former friend often said, for “eating their own.”

Well now. That’s a real time trip into the past. So, what kind of economy can you build on that? The answer is, Maritime provinces are already doing it. It’s called “retirement,” and “tourism,” and “escape from the urban treadmill,” and “downsizing,” and “cashing out,” if you own your own house in one of Canada’s big cities and want to convert your equity.

That’s the only wave of immigration that will actually work for New Brunswick. But instead of marketing to these people, the locals do their level best to drive these “from aways” off. Tradespeople prey on them when they arrive to buy old houses and try to renovate them. Local business people view them as marks, or competition. Even tourist operations treat them like they’re necessary annoyances.

Wake up, David-Allan-Huddle-Bonfire. Wake up New Brunswickers. If you want opportunity, start marketing what we have—and stop whining and daydreaming.

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