New minister with fewer responsibilities at ACOA

The Prime Minister’s cabinet shuffle leaves a new minister in charge of an influential development agency in Atlantic Canada.

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Minister Keith Ashfield was elected in Fredricton N.B. in 2008.

A former minister of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency says having a new minister with fewer responsibilities will help the region.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet shuffle has removed Peter MacKay from being head of the agency, and put Keith Ashfield of Fredericton, N.B. in charge.

Ashfield was elected in 2008 and was formerly minister of state for ACOA. He remains minister for the Atlantic Gateway initiative.

MacKay held the portfolio along with the high profile ministry of defence since 2006.

Robert Thibault, who held the ministry for a year when the Liberal government was in power, says this has the possibility to be a positive step for Atlantic Canada.

"One of the big responsibilities of the minister is recommending changes in policies, and consultations - meeting with local community, business leaders and local media," he said. "Having a minister like MacKay who was very busy with other big files and very partisan did not serve the department as well as it could have."

According to Thibault, the minister can have a huge impact on the direction of ACOA's programming and funding.

"He's the front-line communicator," he said. "As regional minister for New Brunswick and Minister responsible for ACOA, (Ashfield) has a certain amount of credibility with that portfolio."

Thibault explains that Ashfield will be in communication with the Minister of Industry Canada, Minister of the Treasury Board, cabinet and the president of ACOA and will have "considerable influence" in the direction of the agency.
This could have significant impacts for Atlantic universities.

ACOA gave well over $4 million to universities in the Halifax region in transfers between 2008-09. The largest amounts went to Dal and SMU with Dal receiving more than $1 million and SMU getting $2 million.

The senior communications officer for the agency, Kevin Dube, says there are several ways universities can tap into the cash.

ACOA helps fund universities through programs such as Atlantic Policy Research Initiative, Atlantic Innovation Fund, Young Entrepreneurs development Initiative and the core business development program that fund research projects or support entrepreneurship development, marketing or training education. Universities can apply for the programs like any other business or organization in Atlantic Canada.

"Atlantic Canadian universities are the breeding ground of future leaders, researchers, business individuals. Universities are important in that they are creating the future of Atlantic Canada," said Dube.

ACOA is also in frequent consultation with universities.

"We're able to work together in helping shape Atlantic Canada's long-term growth and prosperity. The expertise that we find at universities is really critical to the federal government, private sector and provincial government."

Thibault thinks there will be more room for this kind of consultation now that there's a new minister in charge.

But so far, Dube says there have been no changes.

"There has been a change of minister, but it's business as usual for the agency," he said.

Minister Ashfield is currently touring around the Atlantic, and being brought up to speed on the portfolio before Parliament resumes in March.

 

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