Time for Canada to rise above medi­ocrity

Times Colonist - - Front Page - ROBERT McGARVEY Robert McGarvey is chief strate­gist for Troy Me­dia Dig­i­tal So­lu­tions Ltd., an eco­nomic his­to­rian and for­mer man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Mer­lin Con­sult­ing, a London, U.K.-based con­sult­ing firm.

Cana­di­ans have a global rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing nice; we’re po­lite, trust­wor­thy and, some would say, gen­er­ous to a fault. Re­gret­tably, these qual­i­ties mean Cana­di­ans have turned un­der­achieve­ment into a fine art form.

Why? At the heart of the Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal and busi­ness es­tab­lish­ment lies a deep-seated sense that it’s not our place to com­pete head to head against the big play­ers glob­ally. As a re­sult, our na­tional strat­egy (if you can call it that) is to play it safe and avoid all risk.

Canada’s es­tab­lish­ment politi­cians, se­nior bu­reau­crats, bankers and busi­ness lead­ers seem con­tent to fol­low the trend­set­ters.

Not that the Cana­dian sta­tus quo is un­wor­thy, but maybe we’re too com­fort­able. We’re a healthy bunch, liv­ing on av­er­age five years longer than Amer­i­cans. We’re well off fi­nan­cially when mea­sured by fam­ily net worth. Our health-care needs are met and our ed­u­ca­tional sys­tems reg­u­larly place in the top 10 in all global cat­e­gories, ac­cord­ing to the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co-op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment.

The sad part is that while young Cana­di­ans stack up very well against global com­pe­ti­tion, their tal­ent isn’t be­ing fully tapped.

As a re­sult of decades of open im­mi­gra­tion, Canada has one of the best-ed­u­cated, most eth­ni­cally di­verse, glob­ally-con­nected and cre­ative mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tions on the planet. And if we be­lieve that the power is in the net­work, then Canada’s com­mer­cial links through their ex­ten­sive fam­ily con­nec­tions into global mar­kets are as good, if not bet­ter, than any­body’s.

Cana­di­ans are world class in many ways. It’s sur­pris­ing to learn that Cana­dian in­ven­tion is pow­er­ing global in­no­va­tion — just not from Canada. Al­though we pro­duce vast amounts of pri­mary in­no­va­tion through our gov­ern­ment-spon­sored re­search and de­vel­op­ment, the big fail­ure of Cana­dian tech­nol­ogy is that most of our best in­no­va­tion is not com­mer­cial­ized in Canada. It’s ac­quired by bet­ter­fi­nanced and bet­ter-con­nected busi­nesses out­side the coun­try.

We have the raw ma­te­rial to be world-class but lack the na­tional will to go for the top.

Re­gret­tably, the idea of a na­tional will is some­thing of an oxy­moron in this vast coun­try. For all prac­ti­cal pur­poses, Cana­di­ans ex­ist in nar­row, self­in­ter­ested re­gional group­ings. For ex­am­ple, Al­berta and Bri­tish Columbia share an im­pres­sive part of the world, but might be two of the least in­ter­con­nected re­gions in Canada.

As far as Al­ber­tans and their land­locked en­ergy econ­omy are con­cerned, B.C. might just as well be an is­land of tree hug­gers some­where off in the mid-Pa­cific. There’s an in­creas­ingly hos­tile at­ti­tude be­tween the two prov­inces and with the elec­tion of a New Demo­cratic gov­ern­ment in Vic­to­ria, re­la­tions show no signs of im­prov­ing any­time soon.

Say what you will about the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment, but it has con­trib­uted might­ily to the un­rav­el­ling of our na­tional fab­ric. NAFTA sounds fine in the­ory but in prac­tice it has po­si­tioned most Cana­di­ans as pri­mary pro­duc­ers of raw ma­te­ri­als for the U.S. mar­ket.

The iron logic of NAFTA has, for in­stance, jet­ti­soned the dreams of for­mer Al­berta pre­mier Peter Lougheed, who wanted to de­velop so­phis­ti­cated petroleum up­grad­ing and re­fin­ing in­dus­tries in Canada. But Al­berta’s oil in­dus­try has been cap­tured by the U.S. We’ve been re­duced to pro­duc­ing and ex­port­ing base bi­tu­men and other raw ma­te­ri­als al­most ex­clu­sively for the United States at sig­nif­i­cant dis­counts to global prices.

The grim re­al­ity is that NAFTA en­cour­ages trade on a north-south axis in all re­gions of the coun­try. More im­por­tantly, NAFTA is re­in­forc­ing Canada’s eco­nomic de­pen­dency on the U.S. mar­ket and has dis­cour­aged in­ter­provin­cial trade.

It should come as no sur­prise that Canada has no na­tional mis­sion, no set of no­ble goals that could unite our dif­fer­ing re­gions into a larger cause. Not that this is im­pos­si­ble — Cana­di­ans have achieved re­mark­able re­sults when we’ve ap­plied our­selves to the prob­lem.

Con­sider the re­mark­able suc­cess of the Own the Podium pro­gram in Olympic sports. It sought and re­al­ized world-class achieve­ment in ath­let­ics. The same en­ergy and ide­al­ism should be ap­plied else­where.

Cana­di­ans owe it to the youth of this coun­try to re­think our eco­nomic strat­egy. NAFTA or not, we need a na­tional com­mit­ment to ex­cel­lence that would help break down re­gional bar­ri­ers and con­nect Cana­di­ans more closely with one an­other.

To meet this chal­lenge, we Cana­di­ans need to over­come our en­trenched aver­sion to risk.

The lawyers and bu­reau­crats may dis­agree but be­ing bold, as­sum­ing risk and win­ning will help cre­ate a fu­ture where Cana­di­ans can dream big. It’s a goal worth fight­ing for.

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