Commentary from Colin Robertson

With CETA and TPP in limbo, here’s how Canada can give trade a practical boost

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
October 25, 2016

With our big trade-policy initiatives – the Canada-EU trade deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership – in limbo, Canada’s leaders need to turn their attention to trade promotion.

Canada lives by trade. It represents 60 per cent of our GDP. One in five jobs is linked to trade. There are more than a million small- and medium-sized enterprises operating in Canada. A 2013 survey concluded that only 41,000 were exporting. We can do better.

We need a trade strategy that has the support of the provinces and regional leadership. International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland should turn her considerable skills to achieving consensus on a new trade plan and then deliver it through a re-energized Trade Commissioner Service.

The Harper government’s Global Markets Action Plan is a good starting point. It established priority markets that also integrated the services of Export Development Canada, Canadian Commercial Corporation and the BDC.

Ms. Freeland needs to achieve buy-in from the provinces and our cities. Since the successful implementation of the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement (1988), our premiers and civic leaders, regardless of political stripe, are among the strongest advocates of expanding our global customer base and attracting foreign investment.

Saskatchewan’s Trade and Export Partnership (STEP) just celebrated its 20th anniversary. It works because it aligns government resources with exporter needs. Recognizing that city regions are the hubs for innovation and home to our service industries, the 11-city Consider Canada alliance has launched a series of initiatives to attract foreign investment and talent.

Ms. Freeland should revalidate the Action Plan’s target markets. But the focus of the Plan should be on identifying customers, investors and technology partners. A revised strategy also needs to address:

  • International investment by Canadian firms, a necessary part of competing globally, including the role of pension funds;
  • Canadian business participation in development bank projects, especially infrastructure;
  • Foreign direct investment in Canada including state-owned enterprises and public-private partnerships;
  • Internationalization of start-ups through reciprocal soft-landing arrangements in incubators and accelerators in the United States and abroad;
  • Scaling-up Canadian companies lacking sales and marketing experience;
  • Identifying opportunities for Canadian cybertools, technologies and services, especially in emerging markets;
  • Utilization of the Canadian diaspora and the family ties created by immigration to advance trade and investment;
  • Integrating international education, immigration and tourism into our strategy.

The ultimate test of our trade agreements is their ability to generate new business for Canada. Ms. Freeland should produce an annual report card on progress in expanding our customer base.

To give the new plan a boost, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should draw from the Jean Chrétien playbook and resurrect the Team Canada missions that included premiers and mayors, business leaders and university presidents. These initiatives help sell Canadian goods and services and create a sense of common purpose among our leaders.

Canada’s Trade Commissioner Service is our sales force but it needs re-energizing.

Trade commissioners are door-openers, matchmakers and a source of market intelligence for Canadian business. When local governments are not living up to their investment and trade obligations, the trade commissioners are our front-line advocates to achieve compliance. Trade commissioners find paths through the challenges of foreign languages, customs and regulatory thickets.

Every dollar spent by the Trade Commissioner Service generates $27 in increased exports. Firms that access its services export 18 per cent more than those who don’t.

Our trade commissioners would benefit from more specialized training, including assignments with Canadian business. They also need the right tools. Budget-paring obliged, for example, dropping memberships in American and European chambers of commerce, a small investment that gave them wider networks and market intelligence.

The reality of global competition is that government assistance in competing in global markets benefits Canadian business and our economy.

Canadian business is successfully integrated into the North American markets that account for nearly 80 per cent of our trade. Increasingly, it is earning its place in global supply chains, especially in the transportation and communications sectors.

Canadian agricultural products and foods harvested from our land and seas have earned a reputation for quality. Canadian services in banking, insurance and engineering are efficient and trusted. We are global leaders in medical and energy innovation and digital technology.

A good trade plan will set the compass for expanding our reach into global markets. But success – measured in contracts, investment and talent – requires sustained advocacy and marketing. The necessary first step is revitalizing Canada’s Trade Commissioner Service.


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