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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 (OECD).
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 better-financed 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, self-interested 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 (NAFTA) but it has contributed mightily to the unravelling of our national fabric. NAFTA sounds fine in theory but in practise 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.
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. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.
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